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DANCER (2016) review

October 24, 2016

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produced by: Gabrielle Tana
directed by: Steven Cantor
rated: unrated
runtime: 85 min.
U.S. release date: September 16, 2016 (limited) and October 21-27, 2016 (at Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL )

 

I have never heard of Sergei Polunin before seeing this documentary. That’s obviously one reason why Steven Cantor directed “Dancer”, which chronicles the rise of the 26-year-old Ukrainian ballet superstar – so viewers like me will be aware who this lean, ripped and heavily-tattooed young man is and what he has done. It’s also a reason why I seek out such documentaries. Like “A Ballerina’s Tale“, earlier this year, the subject intrigues me, which is what gravitates me to this type of doc. Die-hard fans may know all about this extremely talented dancer, but Cantor goes behind-the-scenes, focusing on what it took both Polunin and his family to get him where he’s at right now and it’s quite compelling regardless of what you know prior to viewing.  

Cantor opens the film in the present, introducing Polunin to the tune of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”. Is it fitting? Is this back stage brooder impenetrable? We’ll find out later that he’s something of a rebel, but at the opening here, there’s no doubt there’s something about this guy as he bursts out onto stage for a performance showcasing superhuman flexibility and agility.

 

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What’s most intriguing is not necessarily who Polunin is, but what he does and how he started dancing. To tell that story, Cantor includes the dancer’s parents, his mother Galina Polunina and his father Vladimir Polunin as well as his grandmothers. We learn that Polunin was born south of Kiev, Ukraine in Kherson and began training at a gymnastics academy between the ages of 4 to 8 years-old and then spent another four years at the Kyiv State Choreographic Institute. The only way Polunin’s family was able to afford such an expensive school in Kiev was for his mother to move with him to Kiev, while his grandmother and father took jobs in different countries to earn money for his education. “This little boy was our hope,” says Polunin’s father in a subtitled voice-over and at such a young age, Sergei could not have known of the sacrifice his family was making.

At the Institute, Polunin became the best of the best and as he excelled in his training, it was time to consider where he would go next. His mother flew with him to London where he auditioned at the British Royal Ballet School at age 13, where he was accepted. The trajectory of Polunin’s training started to show signs of strain when his parents separated during this time.  It didn’t help that it was around this time that there was a stretch of six years where he hadn’t seen his father.

Although he became a first soloist at the Royal Ballet in 2009, the separation took a toll on the teen and it was at this time when he began to re-examine who he was doing all this for. He started partying with friends and doing drugs, often rehearsing and performing on cocaine (stating it alleviated his pain) and basically exhibiting behavior that is quite typical of someone his age, who had grown up as he did. This was when he started getting tattoos all over his body, much to his father’s dismay. Despite becoming the youngest ever principal at the Royal Ballet at age 19, he announced his resignation on January 24th, 2012, after two successful years there. It made worldwide news, devastating his family and made his peers and instructors wonder what Polunin would do next.

His roommate at the Royal Ballet, Valentino Zucchetti, reflects, “Things started to slowly crumble in his head.” Indeed, Polunin became self-absorbed and what may be translated as a disrespectful and arrogant attitude, what was really happening for the first time was a young man trying to find himself and determine who and where he wanted to be.

A documentary like “Dancer” inevitably has some conventional traits that can be found in countless other docs that trace the career and life of young talents who are praised and harangued by the media. From the aforementioned, “A Ballerina’s Tale” to Asif Kadadia’s look at singer Amy Winehouse in “Amy“. In the fast-track to adulthood and the pressure of the spotlight and expectations, there is an understandable breaking point for anyone. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to see prodigies burn out, but at least in “Dancer” it’s understandable why Polunin would say “enough”.

Months after his resignation, he decided to go back to Russia where he was invited by the country’s famous ballet dancer, Igor Zelensky, who was also artistic director two Russian theatres, The Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. However, Polunin was still considered the “bad boy of ballet”, with behavior to match, like when he reportedly walked out on the Schaufuss Ballet’s performance of “Midnight Express” days before its opening night. Admittedly, there are times when Polunin comes across as spoiled and arrogant, while there’s also the obvious internal struggle of an artist trying to remain pure and continuously examine why he’s doing what he’s doing.

For the most part, Cantor has produced an engaging documentary, the highlight of which is Polunin’s trip to Hawai in 2015 to record a dance sequence set to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” (see above). It’s an artful, emotional and expressive performance, choreographed by David LaChapelle, which skyrocketed online once it went viral and was viewed 15 million times, creating a whole new level of popularity for the dancer.

Throughout “Dancer”, Cantor combines current and old footage, from interviews and Polunin as a child rehearsing as a child to a focus on his current honed body and bruised feet, as well as ballet footage from some of his performances. He is a distinctive and compelling presence on-screen with his curled lip and chiseled cheekbones, but it would’ve been nice to get inside Polunin’s head a bit more to learn what makes him tick and what his dreams for the future are.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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