Trained in Kiev and at the British Royal Ballet School, Sergei Polunin became, at the age of twenty, the youngest ever principal at the Royal Ballet. The dancer subsequently earned a controversial reputation after quitting abruptly two years into his career. Struggling to find work, Polunin had to move to Russia to start from scratch, competing in a ballet reality TV competition. He also became world famous after performing a choreography to Hozier’s Take Me to Church, which has over eighteen million views on YouTube. Cantor retraces Polunin’s story from his childhood, relying heavily on interviews from his immediate family.
The documentary quickly makes obvious that Polunin’s ‘bad boy’ reputation is utter bunk. What Cantor uncovers instead is a vulnerable individual put under an inordinate amount of pressure; we see Polunin popping performance-enhancing pills ahead of shows without a second thought. He confesses that he had to leave the Royal Ballet because he never, in all his years of training, had had a break. And so his dramatic departure seems more the consequence of the strain laid upon him by his employers rather than the behaviour of an irresponsible hedonist (as he was made to appear in the media at the time).
This is where the documentary stumbles. Cantor mistakenly turns to Polunin’s family to explain his breakdown, whereas its crux appears to lie with the dynamics of the industry. It is quickly established that the conditions of his upbringing were difficult. His father and grandmother both went to work abroad in different countries to pay for his tuition, and Polunin’s parents ultimately divorced, struggling with the geographical separation. This placed a lot of weight on Polunin’s shoulders. Throughout his childhood, he remained convinced that only his success would allow him to bring his family together again.
But Cantor leaves unanswered what clearly are equally pertinent questions. Polunin met his end of the bargain by becoming a brilliant dancer, and yet was left dissatisfied and depressed. Was the Royal Ballet sufficiently supportive of its star? Could they have avoided his departure by re-negotiating his schedule, or with better pastoral care? Was the salary enough to justify the level of training and dedication required by a principal? Would have things been different had the UK allowed Polunin’s mother to stay in London with him while he attended the Royal Ballet School – rather than making an eleven-year-old who didn’t speak English move to a new country on his own? And how does the ballet industry function, if quitting a position means that you cannot be hired somewhere else? Polunin himself has spoken out about these issues in separate interviews, making it all the more perplexing as to why Cantor chose not to address them.
Despite its faults, Dancer remains a mesmerising film by virtue of Polunin being just that – both as an individual as a performer. It’s a real pleasure to watch him dance and reflect on his experience, even if the narrative sidesteps key issues. Cantor, to his credit, does capture several moments brilliantly, as for instance when Polunin reunites with his first dance teacher. The story was good enough to start with; it’s only a pity that the documentary doesn’t let it shine as much as it truly deserves.
Dancer is released on March 10th.