At one point during Steven Cantor’s Dancer, controversial Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin says that doing ballet makes you a “prisoner to your body and the urge to dance.” While at times the documentary comes off as a promotional video for Polunin, who continues to be one of the most sought-after male principals in the ballet world for his rare combination of grace and power, it also does an admirable job of exploring the physical and emotional sacrifices required to be a success in this highly competitive arena.
Dancer’s emotional core lies in its recounting of the efforts of Polunin’s family to cover the mounting expenses associated with his training. Members of his family were forced to immigrate separately to different parts of Europe to pay for his education, which eventually landed him in the prestigious Royal Ballet School. A portrait of a man who gained the world and lost his family, the film admirably refuses to pass judgment on whether or not Polunin’s success was worth so much sacrifice and heartache. Rather, it stands witness to the almost inhuman process that took him from a provincial, economically depressed city in Ukraine to the biggest ballet stages in London and Moscow.
In many ways, Dancer is as much about the economic difficulties that rocked the nations of the former Soviet Union in the immediate aftermath of its dissolution as it is about ballet. In their own disintegration and dispersal across Europe in search of greater economic opportunities and a generally better life, Polunin’s family reflects the struggles of many similar families in the former USSR, who found themselves in possession of unprecedented levels of political freedom and few economic opportunities after the fall of communism. While a unique artistic talent, Polunin is also typical of the immigrant experience. The film’s depiction of Polunin coming to terms with his own guilt regarding his family’s sacrifices, a process that consumes much of his adult life, is striking for its emotionally honesty.
One of Dancer’s few false notes is its strained effort to portray Polunin as ballet’s equivalent of a rock star. Cantor leads his film into areas of tawdry melodrama that never quite ring true, as in Polunin being shown popping pills and drinking some kind of liquid amphetamine while Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” blares in the background. Even a long procession of tabloid headlines recounting Polunin’s late-night escapades briefly threatens to turn the film into a ballet-centric episode of Behind the Music.
One also gets the sense that Polunin, a savvy self-promoter, wants to emphasize this image of himself as the bad boy of ballet in order to rouse interest in his career, which at this point seems to be slightly on the wane. This explains the insertion of the full-length music video of Polunin dancing to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” whose Internet success launched the dancer’s recent comeback, into the middle of the film. But this segment’s music-video aesthetic isn’t as emotionally effective as the home-video footage of Polunin that captures his growth as both a dancer and a man. The film’s optimistic ending thus feels justified, as it points to a new phase in his life where he’s no longer a prisoner to his body, having found a way to balance the demands of his career with his emotional wellbeing and filial duties.