For many who have tried it, ballet is defined as a frivolous hobby to be indulged in when one’s still believing in princesses and left as a distant memory soon enough. For ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, it was survival. His world was not tutus and bright lights but a cold gym in one of the poorest areas of Ukraine, still left in ruins by the fall of the Soviet Union. Taking part in gymnastics was a common activity for children, and from there it was decided whether they continued or went onto ballet classes. When Polunin explains that his exceptional flexibility saw him pushed into the latter, it feels less of a celebration and instead as though his fate has been sealed.
Steven Cantor’s documentary Dancer (out around Australia December 1 via. Vendetta Films) begins Polunin’s story much later, however. In 2015, the 25-year-old was ready to leave dancing behind forever. While still a child, his parents decided to send him to the State Choreographic Institute in Kyiv, an expense that saw his grandmother and father leave to work abroad. At 13, he moved to England to attend the Royal Ballet School, becoming a principal with the company (the youngest ever) at 19. His steely ferocity, youth, his exceptional technique, and his off-stage reputation as a partier quickly made him a favourite of the press, referred to as the “James Dean of the ballet world”; a modern and populist alternative to the traditionally prim reputation. But the deep-seated pressure on Polunin to achieve in the hope his family would be reunited saw him suddenly resign from the company in 2012. After a stint on Russian television and in a company, he quit and planned his last dance – a bruisingly emotional rendition of Take Me to Church filmed in a sparse room in Hawaii by photographer David LaChapelle that told the story of his complicated relationship to the vocation that made and broke him. “The artist in me is dying,” he said.
Polunin’s great leap for freedom is played in the film, of course, its emotional nakedness making for exacerbated catharsis after learning the story behind it. It was an attempt to put his conflicted relationship into the only thing he’s ever known. Dancer works best in the moments of where its looking at the crushing commitment of ballet, the physical and emotional commitment and the scars it leaves. Cantor pieces together archival footage to tell the story of Polunin’s lifelong connection to ballet, a personal connection made only more visceral by intense physical involvement. He interviews his family and company friends, gathering information about his childhood and past at the Royal Ballet, seeing how the splintering of his family that further shattered as a teenager reverberated irrevocably. It’s an assemblage that is a moving portrait of an identity built around something not by choice, and the moment where it might be too late to be anyone else. Polunin’s story of identity and rediscovering his circumstantial passion exists with many other threads, one about behind the scenes of the viral video taking focus in the final stretch. It’s an incomplete story, which makes it lack the focus needed to be something completely compelling or revelatory in spite of its compact runtime. Take Me to Church isn’t Polunin’s last dance, taking the stage again in Russia since the video, revived and finally liberated. It’s an ending when the true story is only just beginning, but somehow, it’s enough.