Sergei Polunin, pictured above, has stepped down from his role as principal male dancer with the prestigious Royal Ballet.
The 21-year-old Ukrainian, who joined the Royal Ballet School aged 13, is widely regarded as one of the Royal Ballet’s most exciting talents. But his resignation may have cut short a brilliant career.
Tuesday evening, the dancer tweeted“Just stay one more night!!! then I’ll make my next moves.
The Royal Ballet described his exit as a “huge shock”.
I think I missed never having this street life doing stupid things. Sergei Polunin, speaking in 2011
But for some, it may not have come as such a surprise. In various interviews, Polunin hinted that he felt tightened by the ballet.
Last year he told the Independent newspaper“I don’t do a lot of lessons. Sometimes I don’t eat all day, then I have four meals between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. I go to bed very late – if I just sleep, I won’t have a life outside of ballet,” he said.
“And I have this idea to open a tattoo parlour… Once I went back to my old town and saw my childhood best friend walking around with a gang, looking cool. I think I missed never having this street life doing stupid things.
Whatever Polunin’s reasons for leaving – and he is keeping quiet for now – it has once again raised the question of the pressures facing professional dancers, dramatically highlighted in Darren Aronofsky’s film in 2010, Black Swan.
Sara Matthews is the director of Central Ballet School and a former professional dancer. She told Channel 4 News dancers can only handle the pressure of reaching the top because they love to dance.
“It has to be – it’s too demanding otherwise,” she said. “When I stopped dancing, one of the first things I noticed was that I wasn’t waking up every morning in pain.”
Professional dancers often train for over a decade before joining a company, with the most intense professional training beginning at age 16.
When I stopped dancing, one of the first things I noticed was that I wasn’t waking up every morning in pain. Sara Matthews, Central Ballet School
During their training, students will dance between six and seven hours a day. In most professional companies, a morning class at 10 a.m. starts the day and they can repeat until 6 p.m., with breaks. This punitive program is usually performed up to six days a week.
On performance days, class may start a little later, but there will still be three or four hours of rehearsal before the three-hour performance. Then the dancer will be back the next day to start all over again.
Dancers as athletes
“We think dancers today are like athletes, but one of the problems with professional dancers is that athletes train a lot in phases and work their way up, as a dancer you play by little closely throughout the year,” Ms Matthews said.
In addition to dance classes, dancers also often work with Pilates instructors and have other fitness programs. Male dancers also have specific upper body development programs.
And behind each dancer, there is often a team of people dedicated to accompanying them. At Central, students have a ballet teacher, their tutor; a physiotherapist; a Pilates instructor; a performance psychologist (who also works with the Royal Ballet) and a nutritionist. Central’s nutritionist worked with the Olympic diving team.
In the event of a problem, it is possible to access the best professionals in the field – for example, there are only two or three specialist surgeons who would operate on the best dancers. But at Central, they try to avoid that by having an injury prevention and recovery tutor who monitors classes for possible injury concerns.
Among all this dedication, is there room for a normal life for the dancers? Ms. Matthews thinks so.
She told Channel 4 News: “There must be room for a normal life. That said, a dancer’s career is relatively short and dancers are very focused and disciplined.
Professional dancers go out after performances, she said, but they often have the knowledge and nutritional training to understand what their bodies need to function — and what they need to avoid, such as alcohol.
“With alcohol, I would say in moderation – your body is your tool and you expect a lot from it, and you have to take care of it. And if you don’t, the dancers know it’s not doing what you want let him do,” Ms Matthews said.
Dancers have vacations and most companies recommend taking a full rest for two weeks, although they continue to do things like Pilates work.
stress and motivation
But Ms Matthews admits the intensity of training and daily life for students and professional dancers is stressful.
“It can be very high pressure, and very talented dancers can be promoted very quickly. You can find 19 and 20 year olds in lead roles. There are a lot of professional skills – one clear being that when you’re up there in front of a paying audience, you have to deliver the goods, so having the support is key,” she said.
But despite this – and the fact that the best dance schools attract students from all over the world – she said there were very few dropouts.
“By the time the dancers join us, especially the female dancers, they will have been dancing for 10 to 12 years. They will have started around the corner at Mrs. Bloggs Ballet School and realized that is what they want to do.
“They are incredibly motivated.”