The life of a professional dancer is not an enviable one. Full of passion and athleticism and success in a field where so many fall short, countless narrative films, documentaries and real-world accounts have also shown the career to be uniquely damaging to the body and the mind.
Dancer, a documentary from Oscar nominated Steve Cantor following the so-called ‘bad boy of ballet’ Sergei Polunin from his childhood in Ukraine to his days as the youngest ever principal dancer at the Royal Ballet School in London, his comeback in Moscow and beyond, attempts to dig into what this stress might do to a young mind over time.
On paper, Polunin is a better subject than a filmmaker could wish for, hailed as the best dancer of his generation and having gone through a similarly dramatic fall from grace in front of the worldwide press. Cantor’s film assumes you’ve heard about him and his career even in passing, and aims more to shed light on the toll such early success can take on someone’s family and personal life.
Showing extraordinary promise in his youth, Polunin and his mother eventually moved from Ukraine to Kiev while his father and grandmother moved around Europe for work in order to pay his tuition. Dancer does a solid job of portraying the pressure and resentment this separation would cause, as well as the crushing nature of such expectations on a prodigy with the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Extensive home video footage helps fill in the blanks of his early life and time as a young adult, and interviews with family members and lifelong friends give us a peak under the surface of a man who is still in transition as the film’s narrative unfolds. Because of this, the film functions as an interpretation of what might have caused Polunin’s life to develop as it did, rather than a definitive account.
For ballet fans, there is also plenty of dance footage that shows off why Polunin was held in such regard by his peers, mentors and fans, and why the press became so interested in his subsequent downfall as he entered his early-20s. His physicality, enhanced by the many tattoos Polunin would cover with body makeup during classical performances, is highlighted throughout, yet never intrusively.
But even for novices of the dance world the film remains interested in the man as well as the dancer, taking well-worn subjects like the physical ramifications of dance and looking also at the consequences on the mental health of a person pushed down a path determined only by their talent.
At one point Polunin describes the feeling of being a prisoner to his own body and the urge to dance, while his friend laments the lack of choice for a dancer who’s spent their entire life training for something they may not want by the end of it. It’s impossible not to feel empathy for this plight, even if we all wish to discover the kind of innate talent Polunin was born with.
The film doesn’t have a natural endpoint, with everything that comes after the playing of Polunin’s viral Take Me To Church dance in full (an interesting choice, but vital for those who may not have come across it before now) feeling like an epilogue.
That reflects the reality of the subject, of course, with the YouTube video intended to be his final outing as a professional dancer, but conversely introducing him to countless new fans and facilitating a pseudo-comeback for him in London.
Like life, the story has little real conclusion, and the use of one final look at a young Polunin full of potential and cared for by a united family in Ukraine, illustrates what may have been the filmmaker’s intention when making Dancer. By looking at the life of one extraordinary talent, the film provides an evocative portrait of ambition and sacrifice.