'No regrets' for ballet bad boy Polunin as he premieres new show in Moscow
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In his Moscow dressing room, dancer Sergei Polunin pulls off his T-shirt to show the tattoo of President Vladimir Putin on his chest as the Ukrainian-born ballet star premieres his new show in the Russian capital.
"I see a good energy in him," he says of the Russian leader.
"I think he's actually building and trying to do something really good. And sometimes (the) press is not very honest about things."
The 29-year-old, who has been acclaimed by critics a ballet great on the level of Mikhail Baryshnikov or Vaslav Nijinsky, has long been dogged by the label of "the bad boy of ballet".
He has recently run into fresh controversy for his ardent pro-Putin views and also Instagram posts calling for the slapping of fat people and criticising gay dancers for being too effeminate and "an embarrassment".
He is embarking on his first tour of Russia since gaining a Russian passport late last year with his own dance project called "Sacre".
His tour comes after he last month lost a plum role in Swan Lake at the Paris Opera Ballet due to his Instagram posts, which the troupe's artistic director Aurelie Dupont said were not in keeping with the company's values.
Britain's The Telegraph suggested that Polunin's career had plunged to an "unrecoverable nadir".
But Polunin, who has continued to post similar content on Instagram, is unrepentant, saying that his posts are misunderstood and he should have the right to freedom of speech.
"I never regret anything and I do things as I feel," says the dancer who speaks in an English that sounds both London and Russian-accented, adding: "I don't really think about consequences."
"It just proves a little bit that we don't really have freedom of speech," he claims of the reaction to his posts.
"In the West, you say one wrong thing it doesn't matter how talented you are, they just destroy (you)."
- 'I'm all about change' -
He repeats the views he expressed in one of the posts that lost him his Swan Lake role.
"I want man to be man and woman to be woman," says the dancer who lists his heroes as "macho" actors such as Mickey Rourke and Johnny Depp.
He denies he was denigrating gay dancers.
"It's not about being gay or straight it's about feminine and masculine energy and men shouldn't be weak," he says, particularly in ballet where "nobody wants to see weakness on stage".
He speaks to AFP during a break from a rehearsal where he performs on stage dressed in casual grey sportswear, practising routines.
The heavily tattooed dancer who trained in Britain suddenly quit at the height of his fame as the youngest ever soloist at the Royal Ballet, saying he wanted to experience an ordinary life.
He then became a huge star at Moscow's Stanislavsky troupe before winning a wider audience with the documentary "Dancer" and his 2015 viral dance video set to Irish singer Hozier's "Take Me To Church".
He has since done a couple of small ballet-related film roles in "Red Sparrow" and "Murder on the Orient Express" and is currently shooting a film called "Passion Simple" in his first lead role.
Now that he has Russian citizenship, Polunin says "I would love do more in Russia," while he insists: "I don't think I'm closing (to) the West at all."
Despite the Paris debacle, he performed at the Bavarian State Ballet in January, where he is a permanent guest artist.
Polunin says Russia has always felt like "part of me" because his family roots are from there.
The dancer has won mixed reviews for his solo ventures including Sacre, which had its world premiere in July in Switzerland.
But he talks about a crusade to change the world of ballet, which he calls a "closed" system that rejects change.
"The ballet world, the whole system is very old-thinking," he complains.
"Nobody likes change and I'm all about change."
© 2019 AFP