Sometimes a talent is so oversized it’s like a bomb waiting to go off. One look at ballet’s enfant terrible Sergei Polunin and you can see the talent, his mesmerizing form crackling with electricity. You don’t need to know anything about ballet as Polunin launches his wiry frame impossibly high into the air to know that this kid’s got it. Dancer, the documentary from Steven Cantor (loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies) follows Polunin’s evolution, from child prodigy to hard partying success to burnt-out superstar. It’s an interesting if conventional portrait of an artist with tremendous gifts, lacking the tools to sustain a career.
Most famous as the sculpted and tattooed god who said goodbye to dance with a massively viral video set to Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” (currently at over 18 million views), Dancer benefits tremendously from the scads of video footage of its subject, much of it from his childhood. Born in 1989, Polunin’s early years were well before camera ubiquity. Luckily, his working class Ukrainian family bought one, documenting the young boy’s development incessantly. An obvious prodigy, they undoubtedly knew he was their only ticket to a better life.
Polunin started out in gymnastics before switching to ballet. He won a silver medal from his school the first year he was there, at age nine. It was expensive for him to attend the ballet school in Kiev, so his family had to split up, his father heading to Portugal and his grandmother to Greece, all to earn money for Polunin’s future. His mother stayed with him in Kiev, and organized and pushed him constantly. Within a few years, it became clear they should send him abroad to push his talent further. He auditioned for the Royal Ballet School in London, UK, joking “I felt like I was in Harry Potter world.” He was accepted, but his mother couldn’t stay with him, lacking a proper VISA.
So as a teenager Polunin found himself a budding star at one of the preeminent centres for dance, with his family far away. His mother and father divorced the year after he started in London, and the divorce sundered the emotional bedrock of what he’d been working for all these years. The partying began in earnest, and his peers would playfully take advantage of his excesses, drawing on his face or shaving his eyebrows when he’d drunkenly passed out. Still his incredible gifts pushed him ever higher. In 2008, he became the first soloist after one year at the Royal Ballet. In 2009 at twenty-years-old, he became the youngest principal in the Royal Ballet’s history. Just seeing the flushed admiration of a gaggle of ballerinas watching Polunin practise, it’s quite plain even his peers were enraptured by him. Called “the James Dean of the ballet world” by the Daily Telegraph, his Twitter openly proclaimed his partying and drug use, even using as he performed. His shows were booked years in advance, and he appeared in everything.
It was too much. Within two years, he quit, saying “life in the company was too restrictive.” He bounced around, but no companies would take a chance on the precocious rebel. He ended up in Russia on reality TV, doing the Big Ballet competition. He won, no surprise, but it was an empty feeling, and he was starting again from nothing. Eventually, Igor Kerensky, himself once a great dancer, gave him a break. Kerensky took Polunin under his wing at the Stanislavsky Theatre in Moscow, and once again he was dancing ballet in a company. More triumphs, more emptiness. He wouldn’t let his family see him perform. He called himself “a prisoner to the urge to dance.” It didn’t matter where Polunin was. His demons were right there with him.
Seeing him finding another wave of adulation and success, and suffering inside of it, alone in his dressing room guzzling water, his body wracked with pain, is depressing stuff. It certainly makes one wonder about the merits of the relentless pursuit of perfection. But when he dances, the joy always returns, the effortless grace as he cuts through the air.
The Hozier video shot by photographer David LaChappelle is the culmination of the movie, and Polunin’s final statement as he plans his exit from the dancing world. Ironically, by doing basically a modern dance routine to a rock song, Polunin opened up new doors for himself. He’s found new joy and success dancing a contemporary ballet with his romantic partner Natalia Osipova. But that’s moving past where the movie ends. Dancer closes with Polunin retuning to Stanislavsky Theatre for a night of modern dance choreographed by Jerome Robbins. It’s the first time he relents, and lets his family see him perform.
Polunin is mesmerizing, if emotionally opaque. Dancer has a harder time fleshing out Polunin’s milieu, though his family and school friends provide a few good anecdotes and insights. Ultimately, the great talents either find a way to marshal their gifts, or flame out far too soon. By the end of Dancer, it looks like Sergei Polunin might actually grow up.
Dancer opens on select Cineplex screens in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Halifax on Friday, February 10th, 2017.