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Sergei Polunin


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A friend emailed me this piece by the British dancer Henry Danton and asked that we post it. It's his response to press accounts of Sergei Polunin's career change, which reminded him of another young dancer. He discusses both, as well as the demons that beset young dancers. (Yes, Mr. Danton is 94 years old, and this was written a few days ago.)

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Henry Danton was born in 1919 in Bedford, England, and danced with the International Ballet and the Sadler’s Wells Ballet before embarking on a voyage of the world after the Second World War. He was one of the original cast of Ashton’s “Symphonic Variations.”

He danced in companies across Europe, the United States, Australia and New Zealand before becoming a teacher. At 94 years of age he lives in Mississippi where he continues to teach.

Karapetyan and Polunin (alphabetical order)

This is a response by an ex-dancer, and subsequently teacher, (and a Brit to boot) with many years in the profession, to Ms. Kavanagh's article relating to the Polunin bubble.

While I am in disagreement with the present fashion of exposing the private lives and problems of artists in general, and dancers in particular, one must be grateful to Ms. Kavanagh for clarifying some of the aspects of this “storm in a British teacup” which was blown up way beyond its importance.

In reading the details of Polunin's childhood and progress to his present status as a dancer, I am struck by the similarity of these with those of another very talented young dancer, who I have had the opportunity to observe and get to know.

I first saw Avetik Karapetyan in the Varna Competition in 2010. I saw his first round appearance and was, like the other members of the audience, very impressed. Attending Elizabeth Platel's classes for the workshop, which was held in conjunction with the competition, and which Karapetyan took daily, I soon realized that I was watching a very unusual dancer. Apart from the fact that when a step or combination was being shown by the teacher, he would just watch quite motionless, sometimes sitting in a split on the floor, watching and absorbing, he would then, without any of the “rehearsals” of legs and hands most dancer do when learning a combination, deliver a perfect rendition of the steps, ever accurate, impeccable and faultless, and with a full understanding of all the implications of the step or movement.

But this was not the only phenomenon. Details were added so that one finished up by thinking that one had never seen that particular step or combination done before.

As the week progressed he would add his embellishment or sophisticated improvement of the steps, sometimes much to the teacher's chagrin, and usually to applause by the other dancers and those watching the class. This was never done with any sense of disrespect, rather from his innate sense of improvisation. He has since told me that he is the despair of ballet masters as they never know what he is going to do.

The details of his life and progress as a dancer as I have come to know them, are strikingly similar to those of Polunin. But his reactions to circumstances have been almost always dissimilar.

Like Polunin he comes from a somewhat similar “underprivileged “society, Armenia.

Like Polunin, early life saw him on the streets and into street fights. Both had mothers, who in an effort to get them off the streets, put them into other activities. Polunin to gymnastics, and Karapetyan to dance.

Their mothers, however, seem to have been very dissimilar. Polunin’s mother appears to have had big ambitions from an early age for her son, pushing him, and eventually, one must suppose, being responsible for him leaving for England and the Royal Ballet, for a career in what was perhaps not his choice. All of which could account for the strained relations with his mother.

Karapetyan, on the contrary, in a profession that he liked, at the age of 17 made his own decision to leave Armenia, because, if he had remained he would have had to do military service for 7 years, which would have put an end to a dancing career.

Both, at an early age, though about three years apart in age, find themselves out of their respective countries but in very dissimilar circumstances. .

Polunin in a very secure and guaranteed situation where he can continue his studies, albeit maybe in a profession not of his choice. Karapetyan separated from his family, (who he was not to see again for seven years), alone without assistance or sponsorship, in a foreign country with only his wits to allow him to survive, But Karapetyan calls his mother regularly and frequently to ask for recipes for his attempts at cooking to maintain a healthy regime, free of stimulants.

But whereas Polunin had no opportunity to choose his teachers, to like or dislike their systems,

Karapetyan in his wanderings in Europe eventually was able to make his own choice of teacher.

“I chose Prokofieff because I did not have good enough feet for Pestov”. His choice was particularly auspicious, as Prokofieff produced extremely strong and masculine dancers.

The two dancers are quite dissimilar in physiques. Polunin tends to be longer and more stretched out, a result maybe of early gymnastics. Karapetyan is shorter, stockier, with powerful shoulders, which undoubtedly the street fighting helped to develop. These allow him to lift his partners effortlessly. His “press lift” of his partner in arabesque, makes it look like she was lifted from above, and he lowers her controlled and softly on to pointe. This a dissimilarity with Polunin, who must acquire this.

With respect to their different physiques, Polunin tends to have long stretched straight legs and arms. My teacher’s eye detects Polunin’s hips that are not squared to the front, the result of a specific training which produces a different line.

Karapetyan is muscular to a point which would have delighted Michelangelo, and correctly placed hips allow him always to easily and naturally assume an accordant and harmonious pose, both in the air, or on the ground

It is said that clothes make the man. Maybe they also reveal something of character. There is a dissimilarity in what appeals to Polunin and Karapetyan. Polunin would appear to prefer black and loose fitting, concealing not only the tattoos that adorn his body, but also possible defects. .

Karapetyan wears the least necessary, skin tight, with a preference for white, which allows every muscle tendon and sinew to be seen. His white socks are a hallmark which detail the fast accurate footwork of feet that were “not for Pestov”.

Both Polunin and Karapetyan have languished for the past years in state companies, which have their advantages and disadvantages. Polunin has been presented, perhaps over-presented. too soon in his company and up till now has been known principally in the tight close circle of British Ballet. For which reason, maybe, he decided to make a change.

Karapetyan, facing the hierarchy of a staid Swedish state company took the initiative and got himself out to international competitions all over the globe, where he earned medals, and is known to a different but equally elite public.

Both are unusually talented young male dancers, now at a turning point in their careers, with much to be compared between them. Comparisons have been made of Polunin to Nureyev and Baryshnikov. He is now to be mentored by Zelensky. It is to be hoped that he will have a Director who will not address a recalcitrant and rebellious 22 year old as ‘’darling” and not emerge as a Nureyev-Baryshnikov-Zelensky clone.

Karapetyan, I am sure, will emerge only as Karapetyan. “I just love to move and am happy if anyone watching enjoys it”.

If there are as Ms. Kavanagh suggests, demons in dancers’ lives which live and belong in the darkness, there must be, by the same token, angels who live in the light. My bet will be with the angels.

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THE ECONOMIST is not a magazine where one ordinarily would expect to find a long and serious article on ballet. But this week's issue (Sept. 22-28) includes a supplement, "Intelligent Life" with just such an article. It's by Julie Kavanagh, author of Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton. The article has a secondary title, "The Tiger."


A few months ago Sergei Polunin walked out on a golden career with the Royal Ballet, sounding like a lost boy. What was going on? And what happened next? Julie Kavanagh goes to Kiev and Moscow to talk to him, his parents and his mentors...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012

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I read this article a little while ago, and was shocked at the general nonchalance by the Royal towards Sergei's behavior well before he quit. Moreover though, after reading it, I thought that I wouldn't want to dance with him if I was one of the principal women at the RB (so perhaps this was their way of weeding him out??): the frustration of having to deal with his whims would be enough to put me off dancing with him, so it's shocking they were able to get Cojocaru and Rojo to deal with his behavior.

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Ismene Brown attempts to decipher the chaos that is Sergei Polunin's present career in her latest blog entry:


At the bottom is a translation of Tatiana Kuznetsova's review of the Stanislavsky Theatre's "Manon" in which Alban Lendorf replaced Polunin and which is referenced in Brown's earlier puzzle key.

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Isn't that Sergei Polunin in the red top in this Royal ballet video from


If it is him, what's he doing there after he'd quit the company and had briefly danced with others?

I believe that is Matthew Ball. He recently has been a stunning Lensky in Oneign with the RB. I can see why you might be confused. Here is a link to him talking about Lensky.


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One has far fewer (if any) tattoos however smile.png

I knew about Polunin's tatoos, I just thought they were covered by a tight, red, shirt. Turns out it was Ball's tight, red, shirt.

Btw, what's with those tight dancers shorts some of the guys wear? They make bootie shorts look demure.

Not that I'm complaining.

I see why male classical dancers frequently make good runway models. They are used to being on stage, are comfortable with their bodies and NOTHING they might be required to wear in a fashion show could possibly embarrass them. Not after they've worn skintight dancer's shorts or postage stamp-sized loincloths.

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That Take Me to Church video has almost 4 and a half million views. Does any other video featuring ballet dancing come close?

I know that The Joffrey Ballet had a great success with choreography done to Prince music. And of course there was Twyla Tharp's Deuce Coupe done to Beach Boys music.

But why aren't more ballets set to popular music? Are the gatekeepers of the art form afraid that it's not ballet if it's not done to classical music?

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But why aren't more ballets set to popular music? Are the gatekeepers of the art form afraid that it's not ballet if it's not done to classical music?

Because, unfortunately, ballets set to pop songs are usually very inferior choreographically. The rhythmic simplicity of the music, its repetitiveness, almost invariably rubs off on the choreographer. You end up with an excess of unison dancing and very little movement invention. I know because my local company specializes in the genre, and it's all dreck, dreck, dreck. On the other hand, the structural complexity of classical music tends to stimulate choreographic invention and produce works of far more interesting rhythmic and spatial architecture, so to speak.

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I don't necessarily agree that ballets made to pop music (which is a very broad term) is dreck, but I do think that the choreographer has a different set of challenges when they work popular songs from the 1950s forward. As Volcanohunter observes, the overall structure of the song generally has a powerful affect on the structure of the dance, and unless you're careful about creating longer arcs (a series of songs, multiple variations using the same song) the choreography can be pretty limited. I think there's also a special challenge in working with songs that have recognizable lyrics. (to borrow from a title of Mark Morris', "Songs That Tell a Story.") We tend to disdain the kind of mimetic interpretation that was so popular at the beginning of the last century, where dancers would often "act out" the story or other content of the lyrics. (Interestingly, Morris is particularly skilled at working with this genre).

Tharp has really delved into popular music from ragtime onwards, and some of her best work comes from that territory -- I wouldn't want to write it off. The gods know I've seen plenty of dreck made to classical music too!

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I ought to have specified that I was thinking of one choreographer in particular, whose pop-song extravaganzas are pretty darn terrible. However, the first piece of his that I saw was set to Thomas Tallis' famously complex "Spem in alium," and that music had inspired a rather beautiful ballet. (Alas, it's been downhill ever since.) My other major objection is that his pop-song ballets are evening-length affairs; they give the fans of a particular pop star no exposure to a different kind of choreography and little incentive to come back to see something else. The newbies are being fed choreographic junk food, and there's no mechanism to move them onto something more substantial. The company may give additional performances of the pop-song ballets owing to "popular demand," but it doesn't seem to build the audience overall. The last time they presented a choreographically substantial program (Divertimento no. 15, The Four Temperaments, In the Upper Room), the performances I saw were far from sold out.

Another way to avoid some of the typical pitfalls that come with pop-song ballets is to follow William Forsythe's example in Love Songs and to work deliberately against the music. I am inclined to think that the unrelenting sameness of the drum track is often a big obstacle. This is a problem in James Kudelka's The Man in Black, which has some interesting ideas that aren't developed as fully as they could be, and which strikes me as a little thin overall. But at least it shares the program with other works, and 20 minutes are not 90+ minutes.

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