Tour jeté, double cabriole, double tours en l’air, révoltade. Ukrainian-born ballet dancer Sergei Polunin has all these tricks and more up his sleeves (picture the billowing blue ones Polunin wears in Jerome Robbins’ “Other Dances”). If you follow dance, you might be familiar with the “bad boy of ballet” and his endless supply of ballon. If not, Steven Cantor has chronicled 26-year-old Polunin’s life and career (up until now) in his new documentary, “Dancer.” Salt Lake City hosted the world premiere last Wednesday at the Rose Wagner, through a free screening programmed by the Utah Film Center. Afterward, Doug Fabrizio of RadioWest led a Q&A session with Cantor.
First, a brief history - Polunin grew up in Kherson, a poor mining town in Ukraine. His mother moved with him to Kiev so he could train at a better school, and his father and grandmother each moved to another country to find more lucrative jobs to support his education. He enrolled at the Royal Ballet School at 13, thanks in part to these great sacrifices. By age 20, he had moved through the school, skipping three levels along the way, and up the ranks of the Royal Ballet to that of principal. But two years later, he quit. In Polunin’s case, walking away from a coveted job as a young artist with such talent was not an isolated event; it was a crescendo for his “bad boy” image, gained partly from his affinity for tattoos but largely from his reputation for partying and drug use. Polunin has admitted to doing cocaine before performing as well as grappling with depression and self-harm.
Throughout “Dancer,” Polunin’s relationship to ballet was the most moving: As he put it himself, it was no longer just fun after a certain age. He hoped to use ballet to bring his family back together, and struggled with feelings of owing his family for their contributions to his career. Yet even his successes didn’t bring his family together again. (His parents eventually divorced.) There is a heart-warming scene toward the film’s end where he invites his mother, father, and grandmother to see him perform for what might be the first time in his professional career. There’s also a scene where Polunin visits his first dance teacher in Kherson, bringing her flowers and hopping on stage for an impromptu performance in jeans for her young students. Speaking purely about the arc of the film, I thought that “Dancer” was notably stronger in narrative structure than the disappointing recent documentary about American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland. (Copeland achieved something great, is incredibly talented, and is also a positive spokeswoman and role model - why couldn’t “A Ballerina’s Tale” have told that story more compellingly?) But my viewer’s engagement with Polunin’s story stops there.
I don’t like the “bad boy” framing and I tried to envision what the trajectory might be for a woman who openly admitted to performing while high and who flaunted the discipline of the form by not taking class seriously, by arriving tardy for rehearsals, or by quitting an engagement by failing to show up (as Polunin did for a Peter Schaufuss Ballet production in 2013). If anyone has an example of a female principal who continues to be adored despite such offenses, I would be more understanding of this glorification of Polunin - a glorification that seems to occur not in spite of his many missteps, but because of them. (And I mean a modern ballerina, I am familiar with the rampant drug abuse of the Gelsey Kirkland era.)
Maybe it’s because Polunin is such a good dancer that we are inclined to make excuses for him (though no excuses were made by U.S. artistic directors when none of them would hire him after he quit the Royal Ballet). And Polunin has endured suffering and known sacrifice, which pulls heartstrings and creates fans. But would we make excuses for other talents who follow this trajectory?
Given the gender ratio within dance, women might be replaced in a flash while men, in fewer numbers, are considered more special. As a result, Polunin has been able to get away with things (in life and in the film) that would be perceived and received differently if he was not a man. Cantor includes a scene in the film from Polunin’s personal video archive that shows him stripping down naked in the street right after quitting the Royal Ballet in an attempt to make a naked snow angel. The scene comes off a little “boys will be boys” (Ryan Lochte, anyone?) and a woman rolling around naked in public would garner a different dialogue. By extension, the response to Polunin’s choices might also be different if he was not white.
I am bothered by Polunin’s image, which he seems to enjoy cultivating. But I am also bothered by how Cantor presents us with his subject. To me, Polunin is undisputedly famous, and yes, maybe I think so because I follow dance like it’s the only news. But Polunin was on my radar a long time before his viral “Take Me to Church” video with recording artist Hozier. Even if Polunin is only “dance famous,” that means he was still well-known in a large, international community, yet I got the feeling from the Q&A that Cantor might think his documentary is now making Polunin “actually famous.”
Cantor offered us a window into the life of this star, this brilliant yet troubled male dancer who might have continued to exist in obsolescence but to a few balletomanes if not for this documentary (and the power of YouTube). Here, I offer up Ashley Anderson’s discussion of Ira Glass’ “This American Life” and his recent featured choreographer, Monica Bill Barnes. While Cantor’s remarks aren’t exactly like Glass’s, the implication is similar. Glass says, “I barely ever go to dance, and sometimes don’t feel like I ‘get’ dance,” on his decision to tour with Barnes; Cantor says Polunin might “make more of his name” as a result of the film. Cantor and Glass both feel like they are doing dance a service by guiding the public to it in a way that personally interests them and as a dancer, I am left feeling a little betrayed.
“Dancer” doesn’t provide the audience with much insight about dance, other than that it’s hard, that people make sacrifices, and that Polunin is ridiculously good at it (although even the footage of him dancing throughout the film is not particularly varied in terms of performance quality - it’s all tricks). This lack of comprehension of how the dance world functions at even its most basic level became apparent during the Q&A.
Someone wondered aloud to Cantor, how did dancers even make money? Was it through a portion of ticket sales, and why, despite Polunin’s talent and fame, did he not appear to have the worldly riches of, say, a rockstar? Cantor was asked how Polunin measures himself up to Nureyev or to Nijinsky, to which Cantor replied that Polunin is not really a “student of the history of ballet,” and rather that he views his generation as more of the “go do it” types. I thought that spoke volumes. If someone who has devoted their life to ballet is not a student of its history, then who is? If someone who devotes even a fraction of their life’s work to the subject of dance is not able to provide audiences with valuable information about the art form, then who is?
Disappointingly, even Fabrizio seemed unable to direct interesting questions Cantor’s way, coming up with “What’s it like [filming] him, is it hard?” I guess he meant, was it hard to capture Polunin’s bravura jumps and tricks within the camera’s frame? Apparently it was not, since a great deal of the documentary is just clips of Polunin dancing.
Cantor made “Dancer” with his daughter in mind, who studies ballet, and his constant (though joking) reference to now “being the cool dad” in her eyes belies my perception of the film. I appreciate that Cantor chose to tell Polunin’s story. But I also could have gleaned almost as much from existing online resources. Cantor included the whole “Take Me To Church” music video in the film, followed by a montage of home videos featuring kids dancing to the video in their living rooms, and the woman sitting next to me told me afterward that she had seen the videos of dancing kids but never the one of Polunin - in the true spirit of internet meme culture.
I want Polunin to succeed and have adoring fans, but I also want dance to succeed outside adoration for the featured dancer of the moment. I want people to walk away from a film about dance thinking more than just, dance must be so hard, or, that dancer is so screwed up (“Black Swan,” “Center Stage,” even “The Red Shoes”). I want to walk away reminded that dance has relevance outside the objectification of physical ability or “bad boy” tendencies. Maybe in order to forget about all of this, I’ll go watch “Take Me to Church” (again): I think it all must come back to the ballon - it’s quite the vehicle for escapism.
Amy Falls is the loveDANCEmore performance coordinator. She currently performs with Erica Womack and Municipal Ballet Co., among other projects.