A documentary by Steven Cantor. Rated PG
Right from a maniacal opening montage set to the dirge-doom guitars of Black Sabbath, you know you’re about to watch a different kind of ballet movie with Dancer.
That’s because Sergei Polunin, dubbed the ”bad boy of ballet”, is a different kind of dance star. The youngest artist ever crowned principal dancer at London’s Royal Ballet, he’s as well known for the tattoos that emblazon his hands, shoulders, and torso as he is for Tweeting about drugs and parties. On-stage, he has a dark, dramatic flair many have compared to Rudolf Nureyev’s. How magnetic is he? One headline in this riveting new bio pic reads “Giselle who?”
Where most dance films briskly map out the meteoric rise of their subjects (think last year’s A Ballerina’s Tale), this one tracks the fall.
The opening sequence, with its brash pastiche of newspaper headlines, autograph signings, and mindblowing on-stage jetes, leads you to believe the film will take the bent of a flashy U.K. TV doc. That’s followed by a clip of the unthinkable: Polunin getting high before a performance. Thankfully, director Steven Cantor goes on to dig far deeper than the sensationalistic, finding a wealth of archival footage and insights from friends, family, and Polunin himself. All this helps build a portrait of a boy whose angular cheekbones, liquid limbs, and seeming ability to fly led those around him to push him too hard, too young.
It’s rare that a ballet doc appeals to more than those who know a pirouette from a plie. The brilliance of Dancer is that its story speaks not only to the lengths parents will go to better their children’s lives but the damage that demanding nothing less than perfection can ultimately inflict.
Polunin and his family constantly toted a handheld camera around their poor hometown of Kherson, Ukraine. Through this footage, we get to know an exuberant boy of already amazing talent, pushed obsessively by his mother. He smiles widely in every clip.
Things start to change when she moves to Kiev with him to further his ballet studies, his father taking a job in Portugal and his grandmother relocating to Greece to earn money to pay the tuition. The family starts to fracture, and things only get worse when Polunin is accepted at London’s Royal Ballet School, landing him in a country where he can’t speak the language and his parents can’t get visas to visit. For the next six years he suffers the pains of adolescence without them, and it clearly leaves some scars. It also leaves him, on many occasions, passed out, drunk, with magic marker all over his face. (Yes, he is still carrying his handheld camera around with him and his newfound classmates aren’t afraid to use it.)
Chances are, you don’t know where things go from here, and you won’t be able to predict them. The journey takes the headstrong dancer from tacky Russian TV shows to Siberian opera houses to rolling around in the snow naked to going viral on video. It’s an amazing story about a tortured soul who has developed a bitter love-hate relationship with his art form—and the people who sacrificed so much for his success.“I never chose ballet; it was my mom’s choice,” he says petulantly at one point. “I always hoped that I would get injured.”
Amid all this we witness some breathtaking, weightless dance, but not too much. Cantor is much more interested in why Polunin dances. And for Polunin, the answer, ultimately, lies in who he’s dancing for.