Since Sergei Polunin's four-minute dance to Hozier's Take Me to Church launched on YouTube in January last year it has received more than 16 million hits - and counting.

The one-time bad boy of British ballet admits his signature move is the jump, which he performed with reckless abandon, as well as writhing and twisting his lean body in every way imaginable. Presenting himself as a kind of sacrificial figure, it was meant to be Polunin's farewell to dance - until it went viral.

Five months later Ellen DeGeneres invited the Ukranian on to her show to reproduce the dance, even if he now admits, "I had to do it with no shoes because it was very slippery, so I couldn't really go for it 100 per cent."

She stacked the house with young women who screamed at the so-called James Dean of dance. Dressed in ripped skin-coloured tights with his circular chest tattoo heaving as he regained his breath, Polunin even had the talk show host blushing. She quipped how she had personally bolstered the numbers after watching the video many times.


Polunin, who had been sponsored by the Rudolph Nureyev Foundation to study at the British Royal Ballet School at the age of 13 in 2003, and who controversially left in 2012 after becoming the company's youngest ever principal, says the video's success came as a surprise.

"With so many bad things going on in the world I think people were hungry for something good, for something beautiful. It was all David LaChapelle's vision ... I wasn't really in shape because I had been travelling for four months and I was done with ballet."

He admits that when he came to perform the dance, the emotional force that captivated the planet was for real. "I cried for the whole nine hours because I realised I was leaving it all behind. I emptied myself out."

The video had been lifted from Dancer, a highly personal documentary Steven Cantor was directing about Polunin's prodigious talent, his meteoric rise and his fall amid admissions of drug-taking and railing against restrictions imposed by the Royal Ballet - and finally his comeback.

When Weekend meets Polunin at London's Sadlers Wells Theatre he is dressed in stretchy black workout pants and looks younger than his 26 years.

"Recently I heard that when you're 26 your brain starts to connect so you can focus and that's where I'm at now," he says. "I would say even up until a year ago I didn't see anything clearly and that's when I realised what we can do for dance for the future."

After he left the Royal Ballet Polunin was adrift. He'd been keen to find acting and dance roles in the United States, though failed to turn up for auditions and gave surly interviews. He now admits his ego was out of control and he was "digging his own grave". He was also scared.

"The problem was I didn't have a mentor. Nobody ever sat me down and said, 'That's how life is. You're going to have trouble here or there.'

"By then I wasn't really taking drugs but it was like I wasn't there. When I was in the Royal Ballet [where he admitted to dancing while on drugs] I never skipped a performance in four and a half years. But in these new auditions all people could say was, 'Are you sure you're okay?' I didn't see any confidence. Nobody really cared that much until I went to Russia. Igor really fought for me."

As Dancer reveals, Igor Zelensky, a former ballet star and the artistic director at two Russian companies, brought the talented youngster back to ballet as the principal at the Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre and the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet. Even in Russia, however, Polunin made the mistake of isolating himself.

"I lived by myself and I had one friend ... but I stayed in my room most of the time. So I'd do a show and I'd have my nightlife and I'd sleep through the day."

Dancing the ballet classics had been exciting at first but they weren't enough to nourish him. So he left.

"I realised it's important to have love in your life, it's important to have friendship, it's very important to have mentors and family. So now I'm gathering this group of similar-minded people around me."

Most significantly he's fallen in love with 30 year-old British Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova, an accomplished Russian ballerina "Meeting Natasha [as her friends call her] was
a very big important step to stabilise me," Polunin says.

Initially Osipova had been sceptical about the reputed cocaine-snorting bad boy taking over as her partner on a production of Giselle, that was staged in Milan early last year. However, they fell in love during rehearsals. Osipova recalls that on the opening night, as Albrecht knocked at Giselle's door, "I had the feeling I'd been waiting for that knock all my life."

Run Mary Run, choreographer Arthur Pita and dancers Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin, is part of a triple bill which plays at Auckland Arts Festival 2017.
Run Mary Run, choreographer Arthur Pita and dancers Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin, is part of a triple bill which plays at Auckland Arts Festival 2017.

Polunin says even though contemporary dance is "not his thing", he joined Osipova for the programme she has curated at Sadler's Wells (Osipova and Guests just played in New York as well).

"I did it for Natasha and I'm happy I did it because I would never have tried the modern work and she's very passionate about it. I did it because I care for her."

Although Polunin admits that their approach to dance is completely different, that's also what makes it interesting. "Natasha has to work, work, work on everything to be free on stage. I have to be free offstage to focus myself."

Their backgrounds though are similar.

"I started dancing at age 3, then at 4 I moved to gymnastics and then at 8 I came back.
"Natasha started at 8, too, and had done gymnastics before. We even had the same illness. I had a lung problem and she had pneumonia for a year at around the same age. It came from being sweaty and going out in the cold."

Keeping the body together in one of the most disciplined of professions is a huge challenge for any ballet dancer. Every morning Polunin exercises just to get his blood moving to alleviate the pain. He's also taken up meditation.

Does he miss the drugs?

"I came to realise that drugs really poison you slowly. It's good at the beginning but then it's actually not much fun. You can learn how to get high naturally. You don't have to accelerate with tablets. That's why meditation is important. You can get high from work, you can get excited from being creative, so it's literally relearning how to get these experiences from life." ...

The bad-boy image had been attractive to Polunin from an early age.

"I really was against being an example, a role model, I hated that," he says. "I wanted to be the bad boy, I wanted to destroy. But after Take Me to Church I realised what that did for kids is very powerful. It did something to me. I could do something really, really good and be more effective. Nobody really takes you seriously, nobody really listens to you if you're negative."

The root of Polunin's rebellion, as the film reveals, stemmed from his debt to his working-class parents. Born in rural Ukraine, his mother, Galina Polunina, had recognised his talent and his father went to Portugal to work, in order to pay for his tuition. When young Polunin moved to England, alone, his driving force had been to keep his parents together. After their marriage failed, his world fell apart.

His mother who shot the early footage of her son that helps make the film so poignant, was proudly by her son's side at the Zurich Film Festival's Dancer premiere.

"I know that if you decide to have kids you have to give them the best possible start, but what my family did to sacrifice so much was crazy and that's why I was upset with ballet," Polunin said. " It split my family apart and then they didn't get anything back, like even financially, to bring them together. I felt helpless . . . "

Polunin has been hailed as the new Nureyev or Baryshnikov, and it's a mantle he is starting to embrace.

"It's always one or two people who lead in the industry," he said. "It's not because you want it, it's been given to you. So I feel like you have to be born with that on your name, you have to know something and you have to move the industry in different directions. And that's what they did."