Movie shows contrasting sides of ballet star Polunin
A new documentary film “Dancer,” about Ukrainian ballet star Sergei Polunin, portrays the artist’s two contrasting personalities — that of a high achiever, and that of a rebel.
At the age of 19, Polunin became the youngest principal dancer in the history of the Royal Ballet in London. But he later scandalized the public and became the company’s most controversial principal — getting tattooed, partying and taking drugs.
Directed by U.S. filmmaker Steven Cantor, the documentary combines a series of interviews with Polunin’s family and friends, as well as lots of footage from the dancer’s childhood and adolescence.
Polunin, now 27, came to Ukraine to present the movie in his homeland himself on Oct. 24 and to speak about the changes that have taken place in his life since the shooting of the film, which was made around three years ago.
“When I dance, I don’t think how I dance. It’s who I am,” Polunin says early in the movie. But he himself casts doubt of this claim numerous times later in the film.
The director introduces Polunin to the audience through the media headlines popping up on the screen one by one, with rock group Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” playing in the background.
“He has the elevation, the jump, the spin. It’s almost too good to be true,” one voice says.
“His walk, his arrogance, he's a god. You cannot keep your eyes off him,” another voice adds.
Dynamic and pretentious, the introduction draws viewers in and proclaims Polunin to be a phenomenal artist.
But then Polunin talks rawly and frankly about his poor childhood beginnings, and the audience is given a detailed reconstruction of the artist’s early life.
“Dancer” highlights all the milestones of Polunin’s life — moving to Kyiv from Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine, and studying at Kyiv Choreographic Academy, then moving to London and going to the Royal Ballet School, joining the Royal Ballet, becoming its principal dancer, and eventually quitting.
Polunin is outstanding dancer, who has always stood out in any class he attended, and who has been compared to one of the greatest ballet dancers in history, Rudolf Nureyev. Yet he still questions his vocation, and his role in life.
“The audience was shocked. Why is he not happy? What can we do to make him happy? And he was like
‘Well — nothing,’” another voice says in the movie.
Through interviews with Polunin’s family, friends and teachers, the film attempts to unravel the reasons for the dancer’s self-doubt and desperate desire to run wild.
“When you take off and hover in the air, and your body lets you do that for a couple of seconds, it’s worth dancing for,” Polunin says in the film.
Despite being gifted with pure, outstanding talent, Polunin, says at times he feels like a prisoner in his own body.
“Every time I dance and I get tired I’m just like ‘Why am I doing this?’ I cannot skip a day, though I’m in too much pain, my shoulders get stuck, and my back starts to hurt.”
Polunin was put under pressure from a very young age.
When he moved to Kyiv with his mother at the age of nine, his father and grandmother had to move abroad and work hard to pay for Polunin’s education. He had choreography and theory classes every day, and little opportunity for a normal childhood.
After moving to London at the age of 13, he was totally immersed in dancing, with strict limits and rules.
He says that in ballet schools, students learn how to keep quiet and follow orders.
“The teachers were never satisfied if you looked the wrong way or made a wrong step. You constantly have to turn a blind eye to people and muster up courage to take this extra step.”
Polunin was torn between loving ballet and hating having no voice. In the end, it led him to quit the Royal Ballet, yet keep dancing.
The director follows Polunin to Russia, where he performs in theaters, and to Ukraine, where he faces frank conversations with his mother and an emotional meeting with his first trainer.
Finally, “Dancer” reaches its culmination with the video of Polunin dancing to a 2014 song by Irish pop group Hozier, “Take Me to Church.” It was another key point in his life — he had planned it to be the final performance in his career as a dancer.
But it didn’t turn out the way he expected. The video has now reached over 20 million views on YouTube, received worldwide critical acclaim, and has inspired dancers around the world.
But more importantly, the performance seemed to give Polunin the liberation he desired — after playing hundreds of roles, for the first time he had told his own story, expressing emotion through his dance moves.
“While I was dancing ‘Take Me to Church,’ I didn’t talk to anybody. It was a long shoot, and for almost all of those hours I was crying,” Polunin said.
Polunin is now continuing to perform as a ballet dancer around the world. In addition, he is working on his own educational and dancing project, which aims to inform and support dancers.
He says that unlike opera singers, actors and athletes, dancers don’t have agents or managers, and can’t travel with performances. Instead, they stay attached to one ballet company, where they have no voice.
“This hinders our development. We cannot stand up for ourselves, and the industry suffers,” he said at a presser after the screening of “Dancer” in Kyiv on Oct. 24.
Polunin is also taking his first steps into the movie business. He appears in the 2017 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” starring Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench and Michelle Pfeiffer, and the thriller “Red Sparrow” starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Polunin says that he works even more than he used to, but is now happy. He has learned how to take responsibility onto himself, rather than to blame other people when things go wrong, he says.
“It’s more like a teenage state of mind when you blame everything around,” he says. “It has changed. When you grow up, you see everything in different colors.” Kyiv Cinema (19 Velyka Vasylkivska St.) Oct. 27–30, Nov. 1. 7 p.m. Oct. 31. 9:15 p.m. Hr 90–100 Zhovten (26 Kostiantynivska St.) Oct. 27–29, Oct. 31, Nov. 1. 10:35 a.m., 2:15 p.m., 8 p.m. Oct. 30. 10:50 a.m., 2:15 p.m., 8 p.m. Hr 45–85 Multiplex (Lavina Mall, 6D Berkoverstka St.) Oct. 27, 29–31. 9:25 p.m. Oct. 28. 3:30 p.m. Hr 65–145
A screenshot from the documentary film “Dancer” shows Sergei Polunin performing in the ballet “Giselle” on the stage of the Taras Shevchenko National Opera and Ballet Theater of Ukraine in Kyiv on Nov. 17, 2013. (BBC)