And for good – but it’s no U-turn
The internet sensation is no stranger to anyone, after his solo rendition to Hozier’s Take Me to Church went viral on YouTube 2 years ago. Having made a disparaging name for himself following his scandalous departure from The Royal Ballet in 2012, Sergei Polunin makes another heart-gripping appearance; this time, onscreen. The celebrated prodigy stars in ‘Dancer’, a biopic revealing his tumultuous journey in Europe.
In the wake of the much-loved photographer Ren Hang, ‘Dancer’ forms an uncanny resonance to the over-romanticised ‘troubled artist’.
Polunin’s sobriquet, ‘bad boy of ballet’, certainly played to those heights of England’s love-hate adoration for the ballet wonder.
But what was initially meant to commemorate a dispirited dance legend before he makes a premature exit becomes a turning point in his career.
Documenting a living artist can however, be challenging. Polunin had even jokingly asked if they were ‘waiting for [him] to die’ in the making of the film, which took 4-5 years. Translating performance onscreen irreproachably rests atop of that challenge. Nevertheless, Director Steven Cantor balances nostalgia and aspirations in a breath of 85 minutes. While evoking the disreputable image of Polunin’s wilful days – an introductory punk-rock score contrasts scenes of Polunin performing classical ballet repertoires –, ‘Dancer’ lays bare the gritty truths of his psychological brawls beneath his mythical rise (and fall) to stardom.
The film follows a chronological passage of Polunin’s life: from early days training in gymnastics before ballet in Kiev, to his phenomenal leap as The Royal Ballet’s youngest-ever principal dancer at 19. It was here that he became notorious for his tattoos, drugs and hard-partying alongside his gravity-defying athleticism. But this dizzying heyday of Polunin was also a period of emotional downswing, which he opens up about for the first time, to us and his family.
As ‘Dancer’ reveals the ingenuous adolescent determined to bring his estranged family back together through ballet, he despairingly cracked under the pressure and considers a farewell to dance. A distraught Polunin raises awareness on the unhealthy reality of the dance industry: rampant body image and mental health issues so often go under the radar in one’s idealized pursuit for perfection.
Reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Polunin’s dance hurtle eventually sees him revisit his ballet school in Kiev where everything began. Watching a grown Polunin restage his earliest improvisation before his first ballet teacher wistfully recalls the young zealous dancer earlier in the film. Although at times a disjointed mosaic of archival clips and professional filming, ‘Dancer’ renders the vulnerability of kinship, passion and growing up genuinely, without being exceedingly sentimental.
While Polunin never sought to be a role model, he has inevitably earned our admiration for impeccable artistry and most certainly, courage: to be both buoyed up and trampled by his natural gift ceaselessly. As Polunin himself voices a fervour to “fill the world with dance”, ‘Dancer’ pays homage to the beginner’s heart and marks the Ukrainian’s new direction in fighting the stereotypes and stigmas in dance.
Premieres 2 March 2017, In cinemas 10 March 2017
By Keoy Wan Hui