There’s a famous quote that speaks of ‘dancing like nobody is watching’. But what’s it like to dance when the entire world is watching?

“It would be easy to say it was too much for me, but in truth, I just wanted more,” says Sergei Polunin, of the events that led the greatest ballet dancer of his generation – the graceful, beautiful boy from the Ukraine with the world at his feet – to walk away from his position with the world-famous Royal Ballet. “The artist in me was dying.”

Polunin stars in Disney’s adaptation of The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. In it, he plays the Nutcracker Prince in a version of the classic Tchaikovsky-scored ballet reportedly unlike any that’s gone prior, drawing heavily from the source material, the 1816 ETA Hoffmann gothic novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. “It’s an adaptation full of magic,” says Polunin. “Dancing should always be about magic.”

Polunin is known as ‘the bad boy of ballet’. The truth is a little bit more complicated. Now 28, Polunin infamously walked away from his position in the Royal Ballet in 2012, with rumours of drug abuse, self-mutilation and personal demons raging. Born in Kherson, Ukraine, he’d come to Britain to join the prestigious Royal Ballet School at 13, thanks to years of familial sacrifice that involved his father and grandmother moving to work in Portugal and Greece respectively to fund his education. Little wonder he often found himself lost in the years that followed.

They want to control every single part of your life,

Despite the distance from his family, Polunin became a first soloist at the Royal Ballet aged 19. The following year, he stepped up to be the youngest ever principal in the company’s history. A prodigy. Two years later he was gone.

“They want to control every single part of your life,” he says of the Royal Ballet experience. “I wanted to do more. My instinct was telling me there had to be more. All I’d done was dance from being little, and I wanted more from life. I still wanted to dance, but I wanted to do films and advertisements. I wanted a creative life. I didn’t just want a classical ballet life, doing the same thing, the same dances, every day, forever.”

He says that six months before he left the company, he went to them and asked if he could do a movie. He asked why they weren’t booking their dancers for talk shows and commercials. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to do them, “I just wanted to know what it was like to do them.” They nodded. Agreed with him. Said they’d help him. Nothing happened. “The problem is that the only family you have in that situation is the administration. You’re reliant on them for everything. You don’t have an agent. You don’t have a manager. Their concern is their theatre, not your career. As a foreigner, my visa was attached to the theatre, so they had total control over me.”

Polunin in 'Dancer'. Image: Tony Nandi/LNP/Shutterstock; Alamy

As if in a personal war against the orthodox discipline he’d spent his childhood entrenched in, he got tattoos, started wearing make-up. More punk than Pavlova, looking back on his performances from this time – as you can see on the excellent 2016 documentary Dancer – it’s a bit like watching a swan try to free itself from the detritus it’s become encased in. “I played on the image of being the bad guy,” he continues. “I felt guilty for leaving because they gave me everything they could. They couldn’t give more. I kind of took that guilt out on myself.”

Freedom didn’t arrive instantly. “What do you do when you can do anything?” he asks. Last year he made his acting debut in the new adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express. This year he appeared in the spy thriller Red Sparrow. His 2014 collaboration with the visual artist David LaChapelle, in which he interprets the Hozier song ‘Take Me To Church’, sits at 24 million views on YouTube. Still taking his talent – and the artform he loves – to a whole new audience. “I think I am free,” he says. “I think freedom is the absence of fear. I don’t think I have fear. I’m not attached to a company or a country. I think that’s freedom too…”

He’s keen to quantify that he never stopped loving ballet. “I want to do more collaborations,” he says. “I want to work with people you wouldn’t ever think would work with a ballet dancer. And I’d like to take ballet to the arena. Big shows. Thousands and thousands of people. I think ballet can do that. I think it can lift consciousness. I think the world needs more magic…”

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is in cinemas from November 2
@jamesjammcmahon

Image: Sergei Polunin in the 2012 Sadler’s Wells production Men in Motion. Photo by Tony Nandi/LNP/REX/Shutterstock