Bright Lights Film Journal

No Masters or Kings: On Sergei Polunin and Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016)

The story is that of the driven, disciplined youth turned rebellious and excessive – brought to the fore by Ilan Eshkeri’s viscerally punchy soundtrack – but also of an almost insupportable dose of dissonance: the unwanted responsibility of an exploded family driven deep down into a young boy’s heart, and a Faustian contract with a drive and talent that whips him through achievement after achievement, fêting and flagellating his wrung-out body according to the rules by which it moves. We see, in short, how a life which feels a bit like a fairy tale becomes quickly a contract with demons.

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Early on in Steven Cantor’s documentary profile Dancer, Sergei Polunin is describing his childhood in southern Ukraine. Images flash up: an improvised dance recital in which he is wearing baggy multicoloured trousers and playing up to the camera; the young Sergei lying on a sofa with a kitten curled in his armpit; doing a flip off his father’s knee into the sea. By his account, and the family’s home videos, it was a happy time. An apartment complex, grey and boxy, near to railway tracks – an old factory town in the forest – tired, snowbound; the people on the pavements are all old and pulling trollies. In my childhood, says Polunin, everyone was poor, but because we all were poor we didn’t notice it. He played with his friends, spent time with his father, and was often with his mother, who attended the gymnastics classes that preceded his induction into ballet. In between school, classes, and play, the eight-year-old would sit in front of the TV for hours at a time in the splits, stretching his thigh muscles to lengthen and strengthen them, make them lean.

In the course of Cantor’s candid bio-doc of Polunin, the depressed town of Kherson where the young Sergei grew up becomes a kind of touchstone. Not for its depressed post-Soviet kitsch, but for a kind of flattening aspect where children are lauded for their achievements but loved as children, where innocence and naïveté are cherished and protected, and where differences between different types of people don’t really exist in the wake of independence and the shadow of the Union (at least in the more rural parts). Fast-forward ten years and there’s a montage of screeching UK headlines praising Polunin as both the best and the most troubled dancer in the Royal Ballet corps: the one who has risen to greatness exhibiting finesse and the fierce grace of a big cat on the prowl; the one who doses himself on ibuprofen and coke to keep his mind awake and his body ignorant of pain during performances. The story is that of the driven, disciplined youth turned rebellious and excessive – brought to the fore by Ilan Eshkeri’s viscerally punchy soundtrack – but also of an almost insupportable dose of dissonance: the unwanted responsibility of an exploded family driven deep down into a young boy’s heart, and a Faustian contract with a drive and talent that whips him through achievement after achievement, fêting and flagellating his wrung-out body according to the rules by which it moves. We see, in short, how a life which feels a bit like a fairy tale becomes quickly a contract with demons.

Home movie footage of young Sergei

After he became the brightest star in the ballet academy at Kherson, Polunin’s mother – a strategic, driven, and loving woman – moved him and herself to Kiev so the young Sergei could attend the State Ballet School. The opportunities were great, and the costs were high and unanticipated. According to the film (and we should be wary of being too passively carried by its narrative riptide), it was this move that broke the familial certainties that until then had shaped Sergei’s life and sowed the seeds for the dispersal around the world of all the people he loved. His two grandmothers, perennial commentators brought into the film to commentate and ruminate and recollect, describe this process almost biblically – the family scattered. His father and grandmother drew lots to decide who would work abroad where his father went to Portugal to work as a builder, his grandmother to Greece to look after an elderly woman. Neither was particularly happy. His mother looked after him in Kiev until a package of videos and photographs she sent of his performances led to an audition at the Royal Ballet in London, and a place at the school. At this point, his mother began having trouble with her visa and returned to Ukraine. For her, it was the most painful of separations. For Sergei, it was the point when he became the hope of the family who through great hardship were financing his opportunities, and when he absorbed the desire to bring back his family through success. It was also the point at which he became a child again, developed friendships and misbehaved. Alone, he began to breathe for himself.

We see, during this teenage phase of his life, a powerful, proud, ambitious, and torn human. Sergei pushes his body beyond the limits set by expectation: he becomes the Royal Ballet’s first soloist and then principal at unprecedented ages. His performances are magnetic, the fruit of hours spent practising past the time all other students have retired. He keeps alive the tradition of filming himself, though now he is surrounded by a family brought together through dance rather than blood. In video after video he does one series of astonishing moves, only to follow up with the same move repeated in succession or with additional flourish and verve. It’s breathtaking footage, and difficult to believe a body can move so. And yet – surrounded by close friends, he is a private individual: mentally weighed down by the perceived responsibility of bringing his hardworking wind-scattered family back together: something he kept from friends until they became his closest friends.

In one interview scene he describes his parents’ divorce. It sounds like a tumultuous time for them, and a traumatic time for him. “I didn’t cry for many years after that,” Polunin says, over photographs of his parents lounging at ease, on rocks by the sea. His voice is flat, and he speaks with the light inflections of someone who can now form a sentence around something that used to rip him up to simply think about. This claim is probably not to be taken without salt, but as his best friends describe how as a teenager he’d rock up at a party, be the life and soul for ten minutes only to collapse in a blackout and sleep for the rest of the night, it’s impossible not to see the toll this juvenile repression took. Informal sequences – captured on mobile phones and Sergei’s ever-present video camera – record his best friends drawing on his face during these lights-out moments. Different pens, different patterns, and an anecdote about a shaved eyebrow. Each is a work of art: a day-glow, acid-house art-work mask, and it’s hard to resist at this point – knowing the turmoil of the young star – thinking of his best friends as expressions of his unconscious desire to throw it all in and be a kid again, when the world was perfect and the dissonance between what he wanted and what he had didn’t exist. And so: amongst friends who had little inkling of what was at stake for their talented, fiendishly diligent friend, Sergei is daubed with the mark of the Master of Revels, the mischief-maker, the outcast and step-setter – a role he reprises when he quit on January 24, 2012, and celebrated by dancing undressed in the snowy street – delighting in the cold and the pain and the feeling of having feeling on his skin again, his glorious tattoos darkly on show.

Further losses and humiliations are in store for Sergei, but the image of liberation and wildness returns in the film’s final act. After a spell in Russia, Polunin again wishes to end the painful love he has for ballet, to cut it off, take himself off the drug that took him out of the provinces and round the world. He asks his friend Jade to choreograph his final dance, which becomes the video made by David LaChapelle that went viral – “Take Me to Church” by Hozier. We have the impression of a still-young man who is now making peace with the people in his life, expressing his love for them as they wrap round him in a time of deeply personal trouble – mother, father, grandmothers, best friends, first ballet teacher. In his dancing we see raw animal grief, an expiation of fatigue and upset and trauma, held together and given expression by the steely balletic discipline to which he bound himself and which moulded his body and taught it to move in that way. We see the contradiction at the heart of the film, and at the heart of Polunin: liberation for Sergei is achieved through both the breaking of bonds and the simultaneous necessity of being constrained by them. Asceticism and excess coexist in the dried-out heart of someone who has loved too much and shut himself up to repulse further disappointments, these moments at the end of the film appearing to show the defences opening up, a chink at a time.

A scene from “Take Me to Church”

Dancer ends by suggesting that Polunin, with this video, is inspiring a new generation of young dancers inside and outside of ballet. While this may be true, the film’s examination of the costs and euphorias associated with this kind of ambition has been far more nuanced and granular than this triumphant ending implies. Dancer is a great film, excellently edited, and indebted to the Polunin family for their rich family archive. However, the self-mythologising that Sergei is capable of is quite staggering – and critical distance, we sense, is often discarded. By succumbing to hero-worship it is a rather weaker film, but a wild ride nonetheless.

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Images from Dancer courtesy of West End Films.