Sergei Polunin has been racking up dance, film and modelling projects since his dramatic exit from The Royal Ballet and he’s now adding a Disney film to his credits. It may come as quite a surprise for the enigmatic ‘bad boy’ of ballet to find himself on a Disney set, but he’s definitely at home with Hollywood’s mega-stars. You can read our full interview with Sergei in our latest edition of The Wonderful World of Dance magazine, out now in luxury glossy print and App.
Sergei, tell us about your role in the film The Nutcracker…
In the film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I am dancing with Misty Copeland in a magical world…There’s a sequence where the main characters in the movie come in and a ballet sort of happens and four different worlds open up to them, and there is a ballet going on. It’s not so long; it’s maybe one or two minutes, but it is super magical and super beautiful.
What was your experience of working with the incredible actors and dancing with Misty?
First of all, it was the set was the biggest stage I have ever seen! It was like a football-pitch-sized ballet floor, with the main characters in the middle and four different worlds made around it, all handmade, and everything was moving and flying up and down; everything was 3D. It was really cool to be in it. You felt like you were at Disney World, even though I have never been I can imagine that as a kid it’s how you would imagine magic. Misty is a really good person, a very nice human being. It was really nice, easy and fun.
What was your favourite moment making the film?
My favourite was actually just being there. I love when the camera is rolling. Lifting Misty was challenging because it is really hard to dance for the camera because it repeats, and you don’t know which [take] they are going to use, so you always give 100%. It is quite tough.
The choreographer Liam Scarlett was really nice. He gave us the opportunity to do our own stuff, as well as giving us a good base and choreography. But he listened too, he considers your opinion, which is really nice.
What have you learnt about yourself through studying acting?
When I went into acting, I started to notice colours, I started to be aware of things more and how I feel certain things. Acting is just self-observation, really. What did I learn about myself? I don’t know. You can see things more clearly, but sometimes you think you know yourself, and you really don’t know yourself. You know you realise you don’t know anything. So, I can’t say that I learned anything, more or less, it’s just a different experience and different techniques you use – a different level of energy.
For the camera you use less, and for dancing you use more because you cannot give 100% in front of a camera every time or it’s going to be overacting or over-reacting. When you are dancing you push to the limit with every single step, because it gives more impact. It’s just a different approach and different control. Acting is much smaller and precise and even thoughts can affect what the audience sees. And dance is similar, but it has to be sometimes bigger. I also like to make things on stage very small. It works as well.
How does a Disney film fit in with your search for creative freedom?
Well one of the most important media is the film industry. One of my visions is to popularise and widen the audience for dance. That is exactly why dance should be in movies – it works. I’ve said it for many years; why did we stop making dance movies? Hollywood is incredible, dance is incredible.
Dance makes you happy. It’s a language that everybody understands. You don’t have to think, you understand it, you don’t have to concentrate on it. It awakens something in you. Disney is a perfect company that should be using it, because children understand it.
Children dance before they can walk. They understand music, dance and animals. I think Disney should be doing full length movies where dance is the main language – not speaking, but dancing and singing. I think it would be really nice for a younger audience, but also for grown-ups, because they are just kids, but older kids.
How does the world of Hollywood compare to the dance world?
In Hollywood you get treated incredibly. You’re told how beautiful you are, how amazing you are. Everything is taken care of – you don’t deal with anything, you just do your job. Everything is for you.
It is the opposite in the dance world. You work super hard, you give everything, but it tells you what is wrong with you – that a performance didn’t go well, or that you’re too fat, too skinny. It concentrates on the negative.
It would be really nice if performers could be happy and people could be celebrated and not judged critically. We dance to make people happy, and dancers should be happy people. I would love the dance world to level up to the film world in terms of treating people nicely.
How would you like to see the dance world change?
I think it is very important that agents and managers come into the industry; it’s an industry with none of that. I think looking after dancers will change the way the negotiations happen, because not a single dancer – even in the big companies – knows what contract they’ve signed. This is a bit crazy in the world we’re living. You shouldn’t sign something you don’t know. There are no lawyers, no PR, there’s nothing. There is a dancer, and there is a company.
I have to say, dancers – pretty much all the time you see them dancing, if it is something good, it is probably for free. When you see them in a music video, it is for free. I’ve seen musicians at festivals paid millions for a gig, but the dancers would be free, because it’s art; it’s not commercial. But why can’t they be paid for it?
They need the support of people to reach a wider audience. But for some reason, theatres never do that. It’s like somebody said that it is going to be that way. Hollywood was like that actually before, where the studio would own actors and they would tell them what to do, and the system changed.
In football it was the same. It was a second job, until the managers or agents came in and changed that – negotiated different deals. And so, dance is the only industry I see that didn’t go there.
Describe your vision for the future for dancers and the dance world?
The dancers should know that they can try [for example] fashion – they don’t know they can use dancers from the theatres. Or they go through the theatre and dancers don’t get paid for the commercials they do. I did commercials in the theatre, but I didn’t get paid, the theatre gets paid for it. The commercial world doesn’t know they can use dancers, and dancers think that they are not allowed to ask to be in the commercials. You can.
One of the things is to show people what you can do by your own example. For many years I went through struggles because no theatres wanted to work with me. So I wasted many years I could have danced, not dancing; I was just travelling and working out what was wrong.
If you could go back to the 18 year old you, what advice would you give yourself?
Be true to yourself rather than trying to be somebody else and don’t listen to the media and what other people think of you. I kind of always decided things on my own. I didn’t have a mentor around me who could have guided me. But it is important to have your own strong self and stay true to that.
I have been off the roads many times, because I listened to other people who said I did something bad or I am bad, so I was like, ‘I’m going to be worse’. It’s ego. But then you stop believing in yourself. You think that you might not be able to recover, even though you had the right intention at the beginning.
Read our full interview with Sergei in our latest edition of The Wonderful World of Dance magazine, out now in luxury glossy print and App.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is in cinemas on 2 November.