Prodigies flame out; it happens all the time. But the tale of Sergei Polunin, a young Ukrainian ballet dancer whose family hitched its wagon to his star, is a particularly sad one. Steven Cantor’s doc Dancer illuminates Polunin’s celebrity before it reveals his artistry; much of the film is a collage of newspaper headlines and footage cribbed from television. Another large chunk shares home video shot by his mother, a rare resource from an era before compact cameras were readily available, especially in Eastern Europe. “This little boy was our hope,” says his father in a subtitled voice-over; he went to work in Portugal to support the kid’s expensive training.
Born in 1989 in the waterside town of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, Polunin spent his early years training in gymnastics. When he was 9, his mother took him to ballet school in Kiev, an expensive proposition that ultimately fractured his parents’ marriage. “The fun ended there,” he tells us. Accepted at 13 into the Royal Ballet Academy, he was delivered to London with no knowledge of English, and faced the stresses of adolescence without family support. He didn’t see his father for six years, but he did have the video camera. At 15, two years into his meteoric rise at the Royal, Polunin discovered that his parents were divorcing, and he began to party hard; the camera was never far away. Eventually he would get eight tattoos and become part owner of a London tattoo shop. We watch him suffer, we watch him sleep, we see him streak in the snow, but until the end of Cantor’s film we rarely see him dance for more than a few seconds.
At 19 Polunin became the troupe’s youngest-ever principal dancer. But at the height of his career, roommate Valentino Zucchetti, says, “Things started to slowly crumble in his head.” A marvel of self-absorption, Polunin displayed a fuck-you attitude toward his employer and his audience. In January 2012, all of 22, he walked out.
He had, though, managed to make some good friends. The most engaging parts of this 85-minute Valentine are interviews with his Royal Ballet mates, dancers Jade Hale-Christofi (choreographer of David LaChapelle’s 2015 video “Take Me to Church,” in which the “bad boy of ballet” emotes all over a studio in Hawaii, to the music of Hozier) and Zucchetti. Various cameras in England and Russia caress Polunin’s honed body, his curled lip, his chiseled cheekbones; it’s basically beefcake, the kind of objectification to which most dance films subject the female form.
His story is not over yet; now 26, he seems, in the wake of LaChapelle’s Hozier video (viewed 15 million times), to be finally growing up. Since Dancer wrapped, he’s found personal and professional happiness with Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova, touring with her in a contemporary ballet program coming to New York City Center in November. If rags-to-riches-to-rags tales like this one appeal to you, go watch Polunin, not this clip-job of a movie, and draw your own conclusions.