A quick internet search for ballet dancer Sergei Polunin reveals a portrait of drugs, tattoos, and rebellion—he's been known as the “bad boy of ballet.” So when director Steven Cantor was advised by producer Gabrielle Tana to meet him, Cantor “expected to meet a gruff Russian tattooed guy, but instead found this very thoughtful, kind, gentle soul,” the Emmy Award-winning director tells The Creators Project. This dichotomy is at the core of the documentary Dancer, a film that captures the difficult artistic journey of a man so steeped in skill and sparkle, it’s a burden.
Born in Kherson, an impoverished, middle-of-nowhere kind of town in Southern Ukraine, Polunin demonstrated early skill in gymnastics, and at age nine moved to Kiev with his mother to study ballet. In order to pay for it, his family had to scatter around Europe for work—his father to Portugal, grandmother to Greece. His stage mother recognized his talent from a young age and saw it as the only path for her son to have a better life. At 13, he was accepted to the Royal Ballet School in London—an opportunity too prestigious to decline. His mother accompanied him to England, where he trained hard for what he, in turn, saw as the only opportunity to reunite his family. But the extended separation and intense pressure eventually caused his parents to divorce when Polunin was 15.
Alone in a new country (his mother had returned to Ukraine due to visa issues), the blow of the divorce took a severe toll on the young dancer. With his goal no longer clear, he turned to hard partying. As Polunin continued to train, his talent was undeniable—after graduating, he was promoted to principal dancer of the Royal Ballet at the age of only 19, the youngest ever to do so. He quickly rose to stardom for his poise, power, incredible jump, and impeccable muscle control, but also for his reputation for rebellion. He took drugs, got tattoos, and eventually earned himself the infamous ‘bad boy' epithet. Then suddenly, at the age of 22, he up and quit the Royal Ballet.
The dance world was in a frenzy—undisputed and at the top of his field, for Polunin to quit was madness. But the dancer expressed a distinct frustration with the ballet world, claiming he felt suffocated and wanted nothing more than a normal life outside of the traditional ballet company structure, an endless cycle of class, rehearsal, and performance.
Ballet is being a “prisoner to your body, a prisoner to the urge to dance,” Polunin says in Dancer. He muses over whether he’s only dancing because he’s good at it, and if that’s a good enough reason, but says it would be a lie to say he didn’t love dance. The film's footage of Polunin's childhood shows a boy happiest in movement. He also remembers his mother’s strictness: “I didn’t choose ballet, it was my mom’s choice. I hoped I’d get injured,” Polunin admits. In order to have a better life, she pressured him, sacrificing the family unit in order to push him forward.
After leaving the Royal Ballet, Polunin went to Russia, where he was taken under the wing of the influential dancer Igor Zelensky, whom Polunin calls a “guardian angel.” Though at first it was all new and exciting, very soon the tedium returned, and the dancer grew more and more frustrated. He decided to stop dancing altogether. He contacted his friend the choreographer Jade Hale-Christophi and asked him to choreograph a piece that would be his farewell.
“I did everything a dancer wanted to do. I just wanted a normal life,” Polunin explains. Set to Hozier’s “Take Me To Church,” and filmed in Hawaii by David LaChapelle, the piece quickly went viral, propelling Polunin into mainstream fame. Most importantly, shooting the video made him rethink his whole artistic path. It was a long shoot, and he didn’t talk the whole day. He thought it would be easy, but thinking of everything he’d be leaving behind made him pause. It seemed that, as much as he didn’t want to, he truly loved to dance.
Copyright British Broadcasting Corporation and Polunin Ltd. Courtesy of Sundance Selects
Dancer humanizes both Polunin and the mysterious world of ballet. It's one of the few industries that doesn’t have a system of connections, like sports or filmmaking—success is often based on who you know, and many of those meetings are accidental. The dance world is changing and Polunin created Project Polunin, a new company started with producer Gabrielle Tana, in hopes to support ballet dancers to take charge of their careers by providing legal advice, agents, and opportunities.
“It’s an interesting time now, especially with social media,” director Cantor tells The Creators Project. “So many dancers have huge followings, and they’re starting to spread their wings on their own a little.” Ballet dancers are starting to branch out into films, TV, and fashion, but the channels of communication remain closed: Polunin describes how these major industries think they have to go through the theaters to use dancers, while dancers often feel shackled by their companies. “Industries want them—fashion really wants them—because dancers know how to work. They just need to connect,” he says.
Now 26, Polunin is still dancing. He travels and performs around the world and is in a much-publicized romantic relationship with fellow ballet superstar Natalia Osipova. The "bad boy" label is “impossible to get rid of,” Polunin tells us. “Once it’s there, it’s there. One of the issues was that I started reading it, and started to think that was who I was, rather than staying true to myself. It’s a hard job—you take that negativity and you start to carry it.”
Luckily, Cantor wasn’t a clueless outsider—he’s seen how ballet is portrayed in the media, but has also seen the reality —his daughter is training to be a ballet dancer. “From the dancers I know, people are very nurturing and supporting and not competitive,” Cantor says. It’s not all Black Swan out there.
Though they work in different art forms, Cantor and Polunin combined their artistry for this project. As Cantor puts it, “in ballet, a lot of it is learning the steps and choreography that other people have done and to be a muse for a director. Sergei is just getting to a place of being an artist and bringing his own thoughts and ideas to the forefront. Film is a lot more in your head, trying to find a story. You start out with all this different footage, and you have to figure out what the core is.” He remembers Polunin being quite reserved at first, and Polunin himself says it took some time to build trust. But the final product is a deep, unreserved, and unexaggerated look at an exceptional life.
Polunin has finally found a way to escape the bonds of a traditional ballet path, “That’s what I realized through the documentary. I was an artist, and I could create something, and that’s what’s stimulating. If you just stay still and don’t create, you die as an artist. That’s more of a motivation.” It’s all about choice and being listened to, he says. For a notoriously private performer, the documentary has served to educate the public on his story and on the art form. It has also become a space for him to work out his own issues, many life decisions were made for him—by his family, by his talent, by his fame— and perhaps leaving the Royal Ballet in such a dramatic fashion was a way for him to claim some agency. Now, he’s hoping to pass that agency on to the younger generation.
The beauty of Dancer is that it's not about the angst of one man, but more about the inevitable and treacherous but rewarding journey toward perfection. “I always wanted to become an artist who unites things. Art and war are opposites, so our goal as an artist is to build and create, not destroy,” says Polunin.
Some may say he's grown up, calmed down, or even moved on—as if surprised by that fact. As Dancer documents, through home movies and clips from the stage, Polunin's humanity, vulnerability, and sensitivity have been there all along.
Dancer opened in select theaters in New York City on Sept. 16, and is also now available on VOD. Get tickets to IFC screenings here.