Who is Sergei Polunin? Meet the bad boy of ballet starring in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

The Red Sparrow star first found fame after his dance sequence to Hozier’s Take Me to Church went viral on YouTube

Sergei Polunin, Getty and Image.net

Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms takes a beloved Christmas tale and gives it a new, darker twist. But for fans of the ballet, viewers will be treated to a dance sequence featuring US prima ballerina Misty Copeland — and ballet’s resident bad boy, Sergei Polunin.

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But who exactly is Polunin, and why does he look so familiar?


Who is Sergei Polunin?

Born in Ukraine, Polunin came to the UK at the age of 13 to train at the Royal Ballet School. With his good looks, light, easy jump and apparently effortless ability to throw off complicated variations with style, he looked like a star from the moment he stepped onto the stage and won countless fans with his performances.

But he only made the front pages in 2012 when, at the age of 22, he suddenly walked out of the company that had nurtured him, haunted by stories of partying, drug-taking, dancing while on cocaine, and an obsession with the tattoos that were beginning to cover his body.

“I left because I wanted to do more, to experience things,” he says. “It was not because I was angry, but then it somehow turned upside down, and I started to think maybe I was angry and to dig things out. And, of course, we can always find something good and bad.”

He says now that he exaggerated the “bad boy” lifestyle. “I played it up. I just thought it was very silly and I thought, ‘OK, you want me to be bad, I’ll be the worst.’”

Where have I seen Sergei Polunin before?

Three years after leaving the Royal Ballet, Polunin found worldwide fame when he made what he planned to be his farewell to dance, a film shot by the photographer David LaChapelle to Hozier’s Take Me to Church, in which he flings himself through the air with a despairing, exposed beauty.

Posted on YouTube, it has now attracted well over 24 million views, turning him into a poster boy for doing dance differently, a rebel with a cause.

Ironically, its effect made him decide to keep performing and it’s now the thing he looks back on with most pride. “I wasn’t happy in the beginning,” he tells Radio Times, laughing. “I looked at it and was like, ‘ugh’. But it has become a very nice thing and I like how it has influenced people in a really good way. It brought a lot of light into my life.”

It also precipitated a second career in films, as a small part in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, followed by another in the Jennifer Lawrence spy story Red Sparrow. Still to be released is his role in Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, about Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, in which Polunin plays Nureyev’s rival, Yuri Soloviev.

What’s Sergei Polunin in next?

He’s now starring in The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Disney’s new live-action fantasy film, which takes ETA Hoffmann’s classic Nutcracker story and gives it a twist. Keira Knightley stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Helen Mirren is playing wicked Mother Ginger, but Polunin has his moment in the spotlight in a dance sequence, partnered with American prima ballerina Misty Copeland.

He’s pleased with the results. “I’d like to see the whole movie as a dance, but this is a real confirmation that it can work. I have some plans, some projects I want to do; I see a big potential in dance movies.”

What are Sergei Polunin’s hopes for the future?

Previously, Polunin admits, he has been disappointed about how much dance has made it onto the screen – particularly in Red Sparrow where, despite filming long ballet sequences, the end result was very short.

Red Sparrow premiere (Getty)
Red Sparrow premiere (Getty)

“I guess it’s not as important for the story,” he says, ruefully. “So they cut what felt essential to you. That’s painful to see. That’s why I want to do an actual dance movie, so I know that the dance is not cut.

“I see a big potential in that combination of acting and dance together, like in Bollywood films, or La La Land, or the movies of Fred Astaire. Dancing has been eliminated from film for too many years. But film is entertainment; it has to make people happy. I think it will soon come back.”


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Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is in cinemas now