Ukrainian dance prodigy Sergei Polunin was never really like other boys. Even among other elite cadets at the British Royal Ballet School he displayed more talent, dedication, and volatility than could be expected of any 13 year-old. Documentarian Steven Cantor examines what drove Polunin to the pinnacle of achievement in ballet only to up stumps and reinvent himself as a contemporary artist all before his 25th birthday.
It’s almost amusing to watch Sergei’s parents and contemporaries rattle off his list of achievements before seeing the man himself. The plaudits are never-ending: youngest ever principal dancer at the Royal Ballet; Youth America Grand Prix winner; gold medalist at the International Ballet Competition; Critic’s Circle Best Male Dancer; but just as striking is Polunin’s nervous laugh and teenage inflection. Theatre techs work as hard at his costumes as at disguising the thickly lined tattoo of Heath Ledger’s Joker splashed across one of his muscle-bound shoulders.
Polunin the visionary dancer and Polunin the P. Diddy fan are the one rich subject in Dancer, at once disarmingly proletarian and so gifted that he might as well be from another planet.
Like other filmmakers turning their lenses towards contemporary figures Cantor is spoilt for footage of a young Polunin. The ubiquity of hand-held video cameras in the 1990’s/2000’s and smart phones since is a boon for biographers, and in Polunin’s case it serves as proof of his precociousness. There’s skinny little Sergei mugging to camera with a few casual flips thrown into a hammy dance routine. There he is again embarrassing dancers four years his senior who stumble and over-correct through a series of steps that Sergei executes without so much as a waver.
Cantor’s chosen narrative to accompany this wealth of thrilling footage is the deep sacrifice that was necessary for Polunin to reach the launching pad for his stellar career. As the highlights roll Sergei’s mother and laconic father outline their complete commitment to his art. The family went so far as to split across Portugal, Greece, and Kiev in order to pay his tuition, and the associated trauma defines many of Sergei’s relationships.
Polunin’s parents and friends (the few he cares to keep) spend little time pondering any nature/nurture conundrum and the film is better for it. The details of Sergei’s rise are far more interesting than a theoretical discussion regarding the nature of genius. For the Polunin family the question is clearly beside the point anyway; natural aptitude and passion is all well and good but school costs money, visas need to be negotiated, and thousands of brutal hours are required to mould a body able to perform at the highest level.
Cantor has a knack for capturing the universal in otherwise remarkable circumstances (see his account of Amish rebellion in Devil’s Playground and perhaps his crowning achievement; humanizing Black Francis in loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies), and his frank storytelling style allows for a truly warts-and-all appraisal of Sergei’s determined ascent, fall, and rebirth.
Cantor’s Polunin is a punk and a perfectionist, a joker and a genius, and a joy to watch in motion.