fri 21/06/2024

DVD: Dancer | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Dancer

DVD: Dancer

Steven Cantor’s film tracks the making and breaking of ballet superstar Sergei Polunin

White hot: Sergei Polunin in what he intended to be his valedictory performance

For decades, but especially since the turn of the millennium, the arts have fretted over how to appeal to a younger audience. For ballet, this has meant playing down the notion of “men in tights” in favour of “dancers train harder than footballers”. And now what happens?

A young ballet star scores a viral hit on YouTube with a solo he commissioned to mark the end – yes, at age 25 – of his meteoric career. And he’s wearing tights. Only tights.

At the time of the film’s release in February, the clip had scored 15 million hits. It’s now pushing 20 million. That standalone ballet segment, set to the Hozier song “Take Me to Church” and filmed by David LaChapelle, forms the climax of Steven Cantor’s wider look at what brought Sergei Polunin to this pitch of astounding virtuosity, and to the desperate pass of wanting to throw it all away.

From the start it’s clear that the film-maker saw beyond the “bad boy” news headlines to the vulnerable young man who had walked out on a plum job at the Royal Ballet without a Plan B. He had arrived at the Royal Ballet School from his home in Ukraine aged 13 without a word of English, and had come to believe that, if he worked hard, harder than all the other boys in his year, then his parents’ pleasure and pride in him would somehow glue their marriage back together, after years apart grafting in distant countries to fund his early training.

That heartbreaking misapprehension runs throughout Cantor’s narrative, told largely without voiceover, which draws heavily on home video footage, shot not only by Sergei’s stalwart mum Galina, but also by his roommates at the Royal Ballet School, which will not be best pleased by the evidence of what some of their teenage hopefuls get up to of an evening. The beauty of the archive stuff is that, however much or little you know about dance, young Sergei’s stellar talent is as plain as the nose on his face, whether he’s monkey-shinning up the doorposts of the lounge at a family party in southern Ukraine, or flooring the opposition in a ballet class at White Lodge, or sweeping onstage like a caped crusader in a production of Giselle. Nor does the viewer need be a psychotherapist to see that the emotional underpinnings of all that success are unstable.

Purists may hate it, but the use of rock music under the dance clips – whether Polunin onstage in Giselle or Spartacus, or simply practising in front of a mirror – gives them a grandstanding virility that plays beautifully to Cantor’s theme. At 20, the prodigy is at the top of his game, he has been made a principal at the Royal Ballet (its youngest ever), he’s partying hard and seems invincible. Yet when the fall comes, it’s as if Cantor’s understanding camera is there to cushion it. As the extras on the DVD reveal, the film was shot over a long period – five years, with a break of almost 12 months while Polunin was coaxed and cajoled into seeing it through to the end.

“The end” is of course only the point at which Cantor’s film chooses to stop. Polunin’s existential problems, his struggle to come to terms with his talent, and with a life which chose him rather than being one that he chose, are ongoing.

From the start it’s clear that the film-maker saw beyond the bad-boy headlines


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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