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Ballet’s Bad Boy Stars in Film of Nureyev Defection


By Dalya Alberge
The Sunday Times

A new film to be directed by Ralph Fiennes, the Oscar-nominated star of The English Patient, may turn into a giant leap for Sergei Polunin, the Ukrainian “bad boy” of ballet who once turned his back on Covent Garden and is now reaching for movie stardom.

Polunin, who shocked the Royal Ballet by walking out in 2012, less than two years after he became its youngest ever principal dancer, will take a leading role in The White Crow, based on Rudolf Nureyev’s dramatic defection from the Kirov Ballet in 1961. The script, by Sir David Hare, recounts one of the most extraordinary moments in ballet history: when Nureyev gave his Russian minders the slip in Paris and presented the West with one of the greatest propaganda coups of the Cold War.

Although Polunin, 27, has often been compared to Nureyev, the tattooed dancer will play Yuri Soloviev, a prodigiously talented Kirov star about whom Nureyev said: “If you think I’m good, you should see Soloviev.”

The project unites an English actor with a lifelong enthusiasm for Russian culture and a charismatic Ukrainian dancer whose expressive athleticism thrilled Covent Garden audiences, but who was eventually worn down by the scrutiny he received — not least after he made an ill-advised joke on Twitter about heroin.

Fiennes, who hopes to begin filming in St Petersburg later this year, produced and starred in a 1999 film based on Alexander Pushkin’s 19th-century narrative poem Eugene Onegin. In 2014 he took a Russian-speaking role in Two Women, based on Ivan Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country. “Since I was young, I had a curiosity about Russian things. I don’t know why, I can’t explain it,” he once told a Russian interviewer.

Nureyev will be played by Oleg Ivenko, a lesser-known Ukrainian dancer, but many eyes will be on Polunin, who will also appear in Dancer, a new documentary of his life. He plays a Hungarian count in the latest remake of Murder on the Orient Express and has a small part as “a really bad guy” in Red Sparrow, a forthcoming thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Fiennes is already in Russia preparing for the shoot, according to Gabrielle Stewart of the film-making team. She said Fiennes and Hare had worked on the project for two years, travelling to Russia for extensive research. “They’re making something very authentic . . . it’s a very exciting project,” she said.

Polunin has not abandoned classical dance and will return to Sadler’s Wells in March with the world premiere of Narcissus & Echo, which he choreographed himself. He told The Times last week: “Training is really boring; it’s tiring and painful and you have to be crazy to really love it, but I give 1,000% on stage.”

Tom Grievson