Ballet is difficult to perfect, tortuous to practise and beautiful to watch, and the skill and sacrifice required to make a ballet dancer is the ultimate artistic paradox. Like the 1948 film The Red Shoes, the art form has often served as the perfect metaphor for the compulsive pursuit of art and the toll it can take on the mind and body. When a video of Sergei Polunin dancing to Hozier’s Take Me to Church went viral two years ago it received global acclaim. Infused with a masculine energy not normally associated with ballet, the muscular, tattooed performer seemed to be struggling with an internal demon as he moved with eloquent control and precision. As the video spread like wildfire throughout the internet, millions of people were captivated by the so-called “bad boy of ballet”. Dancer is the story behind that video.
Born in Ukraine in the 90s, Sergei Polunin’s early upbringing was typical for many children in post-soviet nations: stricken with poverty and lacking in opportunity. In order to give their talented son a better life Polunin’s family made incredible sacrifices to support his passion, and he eventually ended up at the prestigious Royal Ballet School in London. In the UK, the film shows how his strong work ethic collides with early 00s British teen culture, and that Polunin grows into an adult who plays as equally hard as he works. He enjoys extraordinary successes but ultimately a tragedy strikes his life, which sends him in a downward spiral.
Footage from the dancer’s Ukrainian hometown and interviews with his slightly down-and-out parents contrast with his grandiose ballet career and the many opportunities the audience gets to see him dancing are a delight throughout. The story is constructed through interviews interspersed with news clippings, home video footage and the occasional reenactment. Far from focusing on the considerable physical toll ballet has on the body, this biopic follows in the Black Swan tradition by dealing with its psychological impact, as Polunin describes himself as imprisoned by his urge to dance. It’s hard to determine whether the documentary itself is a work of art, or whether Polunin himself is one of the world’s greatest masterpieces; either way director Steven Cantor deserves credit for having the vision to produce such a compelling film.
By the time the audience see Polunin dancing to Hozier’s Take me to Church in a routine that had been choreographed by his best friend, they are acutely sensitive to the backstory that inspired it, making the already beautiful dance even more emotionally devastating.
Tarn Rodgers Johns
Dancer is released nationwide on 10th March 2017.
Watch the trailer for Dancer here: