Film Review: Dancer

Packed with jaw-dropping footage of the Royal Ballet’s former principal dancer Sergei Polunin, this probing documentary explores the mercurial behavior of the Ukrainian-born ballet phenom nicknamed “the Bad Boy of Ballet.”
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Artfully directed by Steven Cantor, the enthralling documentary Dancer stars Ukrainian-born ballet phenom Sergei Polunin, who shocked the dance world in 2012 when, at the age of 22, just three years after becoming the youngest principal dancer in the history of London’s Royal Ballet, he suddenly walked off the job. Though it aims to expose the conflicted inner landscape that propelled Polunin’s abrupt departure, the film’s enduring value lies in its visual documentation of the ballet prodigy’s astounding physical gifts and soulful artistry.

Cantor interweaves remarkable “home-video” clips of Polunin as a child gymnast and adolescent ballet student (that, fortuitously, somebody was foresighted enough to shoot) and penetrating contemporary footage of the dancer, his parents, and his close friends candidly discussing the roots and growth of the dancer’s personal problems. The documentary allows us to witness Polunin’s step-by-step development into a ballet star parallel to the development of his emotional demons.

Born into a poor family in the town of Kherson in southern Ukraine, Polunin demonstrated an early aptitude and love for ballet. Putting all their stock in his ability to make a better life for them through his dancing, his family split up. His father took a job in Portugal and his grandmother went to work in Greece to earn money for Polunin’s training. He and his mother moved to Kiev so he could study at the ballet academy there. “That’s when the fun was over,” Polunin recalls. With his long, slender body, gorgeous feet and startling elevation, he was soon accepted into the Royal Ballet School and then the company.

When Polunin was 15, his parents divorced. He was traumatized. Distraught that he had failed to keep his family together, he lost his motivation to dance. Nicknamed “the Bad Boy of Ballet,” he began to drink too much, skipped classes and rehearsals, performed while high on cocaine, got tattoos, and tweeted about his reckless behavior. His parents never came to see him dance. He had told his mother not to, as he was angry about how hard she had pushed him as a child. He had a demanding performance schedule with the company and felt worked to the point of exhaustion, so he quit.

He wanted to join an American company, but none would have him. “I had to go to Russia, which wasn’t in my plans,” Polunin said. In one of the film’s most agonizing scenes, we see him stooping to the humiliating level of competing on a TV ballet-competition reality show. After finally getting accepted into a Russian ballet company, he soon started experiencing the same feelings he’d had in London. “You feel like a prisoner to your body. You have no energy, no fresh thoughts,” he explains. “Every time I go onstage, it’s a fight between tiredness, anger and frustration.” When Polunin found himself hoping he’d get injured so he wouldn’t have to dance anymore, he decided to part ways with the ballet world and gave a ravishing “farewell performance” in the David LaChapelle video “Take Me to Church,” which went viral.

In the end, when we’ve come to understand the evolution of his troubled psyche, Polunin’s mercurial behavior is no longer surprising. Yet what remains jaw-dropping is his supreme talent. Today, Polunin continues to perform, but only on his own terms. Ballet fans will want to savor this documentary for the rare glimpses it provides of a truly extraordinary dancer.

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