Sergei Polunin and the Mispronunciation

KIEV, UKRAINE—This was supposed to be a different story. Back in December, I got in touch with London’s Royal Opera House (ROH), requesting to do an interview with their First Soloist, Sergei Polunin. The Ukrainian-born Polunin, 22, has been heralded as his generation’s answer to Rudolph Nureyev and I thought he might make for an interesting interview especially because this season, Polunin was supposed to make his debut in four major roles. I didn’t hear back from the press office for several weeks (it was smack in the middle of the holidays) and when I emailed them again in January, they said that they thought it wouldn’t be a problem, they just needed to check with him first. A day or so after, I was at the gym, flipping through The Times and I literally gasped. Polunin, who had joined the Royal Ballet School in 2003 and had been named the Young British Dancer of the Year in 2007, had suddenly and inexplicitly resigned from ROH. For the ballet world, this was all very shocking news and warranted reams of articles, not only about Polunin himself but the pressures of the professional ballet world.

From what everyone could cobble together (he wasn’t talking to the press), Polunin just got tired from the pressure and felt constricted by the strict regime that being a top dancer entails. Ballet is not an easy life—not only the anorexic diets and grueling rehearsals—but also, the bitchiness and backstabbing that takes place backstage and in the dance studios a la the film “Black Swan.” A source told the Daily Telegraph that his resignation was “a total bolt out of the blue [and] he just said he did not want to dance here any more.” There were gossipy articles talking of his “erratic” Twitter posts and breathless chatter about what he meant by a Tweet on New Year’s Eve when he wrote, “2012 it’s going to be controversial;).”  There were even rumors that he was going to be investing in a tattoo parlor and that the British government were going to deport him because he was no longer gainfully employed by the ROH.

Now it seems Polunin is back and will be performing at London’s Sadler’s Wells with his compatriot, Ivan Putrov, who himself had been a principal dancer at the ROH until the summer of 2010. The show, “Men in Motion,” will take place from 13-15 March and expect a flurry of excitement –and frenzied gossip—surrounding his return to the London stage. There had been rumors that if Polunin did have to go back to Ukraine, would he be offered a job at the Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theatre. I was heading to Kiev anyway, so figured I could straight to the top and ask the theatre’s general manager, Petro Chupryna, that exact question.
sergei-2-682x1024Ah, yes, and here begins my rant.

You would think that the Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theatre would be a fairly easy place to get in touch with and find out information on performances, contacts and important questions like would Polunin be pirouetting across their stage. Unfortunately, that is not the case. When their website was up (I say this because it was shut down for a week for “reconstruction”) it was all in Ukrainian and even after the website renovations, there still is no option for English. I had to go through a Russian friend who knew a Ukrainian woman who worked in the arts who was able to get me the name of the general director and a contact for his assistant. I called her and she told me to send an email. I emailed her and heard nothing back.

When I got to Kiev, I decided to make one last attempt to reach him. When I was the Ministry of Culture doing an interview, I asked the Minister’s press attaché if he might recommend a way to reach out to Chupryna. “No need for that,” the bureaucrat said with a laugh. “He’s down the hall. You can meet him right now.” I was whisked down the corridor into a room (turns out it was the office of the deputy minister, who proceeded to give me a book on Orthodox icons) and introduced me to Chupryna. It was all very random—he had no idea who I was or why I was being presented to him—and I started to tell him I wanted to talk with him about Polunin. “Polutkin, I do no know this person,” said the elegantly dressed Chupryna. “You know, the Royal Opera House’s dancer who just quit,” I said, trying to jog his memory and slightly worried maybe he did not know what had happened. “Polukin, Polutkin,” he said, questioning me. “Yes, well I could be saying it wrong because in Polish the L can sound like a W so maybe I am saying his name wrong. I know the Ukrainian language is different than Polish but….” I trailed off.

Chupryna then grabbed his mobile and started talking to someone. It was all fairly baffling, as it was obvious I was trying to conduct an interview. After about five minutes of me trying—through a translator—explain to him who I was trying to talk with him about and he was half listening with the phone in his ear, he finally looked at me, shut off his phone and said, “Ah, Polunin.” Turns out, he was shouting down the line, asking his assistant (presumably the one who does not return emails) to figure out who I was trying to talk about. My pronunciation was off but finally we got moving on the interview. “He is very talented and one of the greatest performers in the ballet world,” Chupryna told me.  “Sergei is one of the ballet elite and they have their own specific life. Not many dancers of such level work in the same opera house for a long time. But people of such great talent do things that cannot be understood by us.” I asked him if he would welcome Polunin back to the Kiev stage. “I have no direct ties or connections  to him so I cannot comment on his future,” he said.  “But if he wants to come work here with us, he is very welcome.” With that, he grabbed his briefcase and left. All very odd and yet fitting for the mystery of Sergei Polunin.

I hope that someday I can sit down with Polunin myself and ask him what instigated his decision to leave the ROH—be that in London or Kiev or wherever else he lands.


Photos of Sergei Polunin dancing Sleeping Beauty–courtesy Johan Persson/Royal Opera House

1 reply
  1. Marina
    Marina says:

    Wow! Will try to see him in Sadlers Wells. I love Putrov too. Did an interview with him years ago, and it wasn’t anywhere as difficult to arrange as with Polunin!

    You made me laugh about the National Opera of Ukraine! So typical!

Comments are closed.