Sergei Polunin is widely considered to be one of the most talented and interesting ballet dancers in the modern world. A prolific artist who has soloed for packed houses at London’s prestigious Royal Ballet since the age of 18, Polunin has since starred in dozens of productions and received acclaim from nearly every critic and choreographer who has crossed his path. He’s dazzled millions with his incredible grace, perfect technique and mastery of the craft.
Polunin is the subject of the recently released documentary, “Dancer.” Directed by Steven Cantor (“Blood Ties”), the documentary offers a troubled, even unsettling portrait of a young dancer’s past, present and future. When Polunin was nine, his family placed him in an intensive ballet school in Kiev. To afford his tuition, his father and grandparents left Ukraine to find better-paying work, effectively splitting his family apart. When he was 13, Polunin began attending the Royal Ballet School in London. He was sent to England alone, without knowing a word of English. In “Dancer,” Polunin recalls this as a time of deeply rooted fear and stress. Any hope for his family’s reunion was contingent on his success as a dancer, so he practiced and pushed himself harder than anyone else at his school. By 18, he was the youngest principal dancer the Royal Ballet had ever seen.
What happened next should be a shock to nobody who has grown up in the age when the rebellions of intensely disciplined and controlled child stars are on the front cover of every magazine. Polunin started acting out. He broke down during rehearsals, started getting tattoos, danced most of his performances completely high on cocaine and eventually quit the Royal Ballet when he was 22.
Polunin’s story is a mix of two fairly well-understood narratives: ballet as a hyper-disciplined and controlled form of prolonged mental and physical torture, and the consequences of putting so much pressure on somebody so young. His narrative is a dance movie, family drama and character study all at once.
Cantor uses this to full effect, and every sequence of dance or emotional reveal works with the understanding that for Polunin, there has never been any separation between the two. There’s a devastating reason behind every outburst, and every emotion is reflected in his dancing. Footage of Polunin performing is used carefully, and only to underscore a point being made about his character or what was happening to him at the time.
There are only a few moments in the film when we are treated to long sequences of Polunin dancing. One is during his performance of Spartacus in Russia, after he had quit the Royal Ballet. By this point, Polunin is considering quitting dance altogether. Images of him attending to his bleeding, blistering feet and lying sprawled out on the floor in exhaustion are intercut with a genuinely beautiful performance. He’s in every kind of pain possible, and though he doesn’t speak much, it’s clear he wants out.
And yet, it would be too simple a narrative if it were all pain and gloom. Though Polunin certainly has a complicated relationship to dance, it’s evident that there’s a real love there. He says it feels like flying when it’s good, and when he can forget all the pain that pushed him onstage.
Throughout the documentary, he stops and starts over and over again, so you start to get the sense that he can’t seem to make himself stop. “You feel like a prisoner to your body,” Polunin says, “…to the urge to dance.”
In other words: he can’t help himself.