Maverick dancer Polunin seeks to be David Beckham of ballet

Maverick dancer Polunin seeks to be David Beckham of ballet

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LONDON (AP) — Sergei Polunin wants to shake up the ballet world by becoming the David Beckham of dance.

The 27-year-old Ukrainian star, who has been in the headlines for rebellious tweets, tattoos and leaving the Royal Ballet, wants to challenge the dance world's established system to provide more creative freedom for its artists.

Citing Beckham's role as a soccer ambassador, Polunin says he is on a mission to make ballet more popular and more accessible for those who can't afford expensive theater tickets.

"It's very important for humans to see dance, it's a language that everybody understands," he told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. "If you have stars, people like David Beckham of the ballet world, it's just going to bring attention to what we're doing."

While Beckham's star power has helped other top soccer players break into the celebrity world, Polunin plans to use his spotlight to shift the power balance in his industry so dancers have a more of a say in what they perform.

"I truly want to lift up the industry," he explains. "I want to level up with the acting industry and sport and any other art industry. I think it needs to be more developed. Agents and managers have to go into the system."

He's already started to do this by setting up Project Polunin, which borrows dancers from companies and connects them with directors and composers to create new works.

The idea came from his own wildly successful collaboration with American photographer and music video director David LaChappelle. They teamed up to film Polunin performing choreography by Jade Hale-Christofi to Hozier's song "Take Me To Church" — creating a video that has been seen over 18.5 million times online.

"When I worked with David LaChappelle, I was stimulated ... He was explaining how he does things, how he works. I realized what an artist is, so I thought that's what dancers should experience," Polunin said. "You have to be creative, you have to talk to other people."

The process of Polunin shooting the video is shown in the new documentary "Dancer" — and was a big part of the evolution of his career. "Take Me To Church" was supposed to be Polunin's swan song — a final emotional performance, followed by him bowing out of the dance world for good.

"I wanted to give up dancing, so I thought the documentary would just document my dancing and I will move on," says Polunin.

But that didn't happen. Instead, the project reignited his love for dance and opened up his world to new possibilities. As well as saving his dance career, the documentary was the first of many appearances for Polunin on the big screen.

He's recently realized a life-long dream by being in Kenneth Branagh's all-star remake of "Murder On The Orient Express."

"I was just standing, watching how Johnny Depp acts, what he uses, what he touches — it's a learning curve," he said. "My first scene was right opposite Willem Dafoe. I was like, 'Wow.' And, you know, Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi — all these amazing stars — it's just very inspiring."

Polunin says acting and dancing have much in common — they are all expressing emotions.

He still sticks to a strict dance regime while he is filming, getting up as early as 3 a.m. to complete a ballet class before going on the set.

Luckily his next project will combine the two art forms: Polunin will be dancing and acting in "The White Crow" - a feature film about the life of legendary ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, directed by Ralph Fiennes.

"Dancer" opens in the U.K. on March 10.

Polunin is performing Thursday at its premiere in London.

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