Review: Dancer (2016)

Dancer (2016)

Directed by: Steven Cantor | 85 minutes | documentary, biography | Starring: Sergei Polunin, Jade Hale-Christofi

Sergei Polunin is greeted everywhere by people who want an autograph from him or have their picture taken with him. You’d think she was a world-class pop star, but the tattooed Ukrainian is a professional ballet dancer. At 19, he became the youngest principal ever to dance with the Royal Ballet in London. In the documentary ‘Dancer’ we see how Sergei makes his entrance into the ballet world and how, surrounded by controversy, he seems to be pushed out of the same world almost as quickly. We see his fight between doing what he does best and loves and the strict rules and discipline that limit his freedom.

Using many old photos and home video footage, Steven Cantor’s documentary shows how Sergei got into the ballet world and what the first 25 years of his life were like. Through interviews with his parents, friends and people from the ballet world, we get a multifaceted picture of the developments that Sergei has endured.

His ballet career actually started at the age of three. Growing up in southern Ukraine, he first took up gymnastics/gymnastics, but was soon transferred to ballet. When he was nine years old, his mother wanted to send him to the best ballet school in the country, in Kiev. Since that was a very expensive school, Sergei’s father and grandmother had to move to Portugal and Greece to work there and raise enough money. “I guess that’s when the fun was over”. Feeling the responsibility for the distance created in his family, Sergei practiced twice as hard as anyone else, hoping his success would bring his family back together. He can’t do this. However, all the practice and his innate talent ensures that he becomes very good. He soon belongs to the (international) top of ballet dancers. But the great responsibility he feels and the many restrictions imposed by the Royal Ballet Company soon lead to rebellious behaviour. At first it is fairly innocent, with his friends in London, but later it becomes a lot more serious when he also turns to drugs and is discredited in the press.

In 2012, when he left the Royal Ballet, it caused a major scandal: no one had ever done that! But Sergei felt really free and happy for the first time. However, this is not long-lasting. As a dancer in heart and soul, he wanted to rejoin another company, but nobody dared to do it with him. He eventually ends up with Igor Zelensky in Russia and has the opportunity to dance as principal again, but he doesn’t last long either.

Throughout the documentary we see his fight (sometimes literally supported by footage from the piece Spartacus, where he is dancing and fighting and being attacked by swords and spears) between his love of dance and his aversion to the rules and restrictions imposed by the institutions. These two sides of him are beautifully showcased by showing both dance performances (and man, can he dance!) as well as moments when things go wrong and the many headlines and news snippets that focus on the scandal and his rebellious behaviour. The accompaniment of rock music (also with images of ballet performances) further expresses this contrast.

‘Dancer’ is a wonderful documentary that gives a very complete picture of the life of a unique dancer. What becomes especially clear in the film is that Sergei can’t stop dancing, even if he wanted to. It is who he is and it is also what makes him the way he is. ‘Dancer’ shows how hard life is as a professional ballet dancer, and more specifically in the case of Sergei, but the film also shows how beautiful ballet can be and how special Sergei is.

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