Rebel dancer Sergei Polunin takes Moscow theater to new heights
Yet the Ukrainian, 23, is now arguably the hottest young ballet dancer on the planet, with an impeccable classical technique, astounding jumps and a natural gift for acting.
In 2012 he caused a sensation by walking out on the Royal Ballet of Covent Garden in London, which had nurtured his career since his teens and where he had shot to stardom.
There was talk of a bad attitude, depression, a row with a top ballerina, and for several months Polunin appeared to have retreated to the wilderness.
When he re-emerged one year ago, he caused another surprise by joining the ballet troupe of Moscow's Stanislavsky Musical Theater, a company until now overshadowed by the iconic ballet of the Bolshoi Theater just down the road.
But with Polunin, the Stanislavsky ballet company has achieved a new prominence in Moscow and tickets for its performances have become as in-demand as those for the Bolshoi.
He has electrified Moscow audiences as the tragic Prince Rudolf in Kenneth MacMillan's ballet "Mayerling" and most recently this month as the noble warrior Solor in the theater's new production of the classical ballet "La Bayadere."
'Always tried to be different'
But Polunin, whose torso and arms are adorned by several tattoos that are covered up by make-up in performances, still insists he is totally different from the traditional ballet dancer.
"I have always tried to be very different ever since I was a kid. It's like a personality thing. I'm a Scorpion. I almost like to be away from people, just to observe," he told AFP in a break of rehearsals for "La Bayadere."
He said his hero is the hell-raising American actor Mickey Rourke and compared his interpretation of Solor in "La Bayadere" with that of Russell Crowe in the film "Gladiator."
Polunin makes no attempt to hide his lack of enthusiasm for the exhausting routine of rehearsing, preferring to be driven by the intoxicating adrenaline of the live performance.
"For dancers, it constantly has to be a firework, every show has to be like you have proven something. It has to be an event," he said.
"I'm lucky in this theater—if I do not want to come in I don't come in. I just take it easy in rehearsals normally—I like spontaneity. Very few rehearsals."
From a Russian-speaking family and brought up in the tough Kherson region of southern Ukraine, Polunin took part in gymnastics as a young boy and then entered ballet school in Kiev.
But in 2003, aged just 13, he left Ukraine to take the once-in-a-lifetime chance of studying at the Royal Ballet School in London.
He joined the Royal Ballet itself aged just 17, and at 19 became the youngest principal dancer in its history.
Having spent most of his recent life in Britain, Polunin admitted he still speaks Russian with an accent and had to re-learn old cultural habits when he came to Moscow.
"I felt like I was back at school. I had to learn how to speak. For example, how girls behave, do you pay for them in a restaurant or not," he said, speaking comfortable English with the accent of a native Londoner.
Royal Ballet 'very predictable'
A year after joining the Stanislavsky Theater, Polunin said he had no regrets about leaving behind the traditions of the Royal Ballet.
"I could see how I was going to end up, it was, like, very predictable."
At the Stanislavsky, Polunin found what many thought he had lacked in London—a mentor in the shape of the theater's ballet director, the great Russian dancer Igor Zelensky, who has spearheaded ambitious new projects since taking his post in June 2011.
"Igor Zelensky understands me. He believed in me and that is very important. Because not many people did," Polunin said.
He admitted that "you get hooked" on the financial rewards that come with being an international ballet star and said the fame can be an addiction in itself.
"But once you have been there and come out you realize how stupid this is. It's important, like Igor told me, to 'stay and do what you do'."
He revealed he had received offers for film work, including from Hollywood, but said they had been for "secondary roles" that would have been "risky" to take.
Polunin's success has been a huge coup for the Stanislavsky at a time of great turbulence for the Bolshoi ballet after an assailant threw acid on its director Sergei Filin, nearly blinding him in an attack purportedly organized by an embittered former soloist.
Filin had headed the Stanislavsky ballet until his appointment at the Bolshoi in 2011.
The Stanislavsky—whose unwieldy full name, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater, commemorates Russian theater greats Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko—has a loyal audience in Moscow, where it is known affectionately as the "Stasik."
Polunin is treated with huge sensitivity at the theater, where he is known to everyone as Seryezha, the Russian diminutive of his name. Despite his unorthodox approach, he brings a fierce intensity to his work.
The theater now needs to find new challenges for Polunin, who admits he loses interest if things become routine. A new production of MacMillan's ballet "Manon" is planned, starring the Ukrainian.
"If there was no 'Bayadere' or 'Manon' coming up I would probably lose a lot of interest. There would be less stress. But you always have to move forwards," he said. — Agence France-Presse