“You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
Dancer, Director Steven Cantor’s intense documentary about the ballet’s “bad boy” Sergei Polunin hands viewers a backstage pass into the inspiring, beautiful and unforgiving world of classical ballet. Candid interviews, home movies, and news clips are pieced together to follow Sergei from his early childhood as a Ukrainian gymnast whose mother dreamed of a better future for her son, through his unlikely trajectory to the Royal Ballet Academy of London where he rose to become their youngest ever principal dancer by the astounding age of twenty two.
Sergei’s mother is so ambitious on her son’s behalf that she pulls him from gymnastics (where he typically comes in third place rather than winning) and finds the best dance teacher in the Ukraine. She then reaches out to request an audition at the Royal Academy. Though they cannot afford it, Sergei and his mother fly to London for the audition. Sergei’s father and grandmother relocate to find work that will pay for dance school, and his mother must leave him in London when she discovers that her visa will not allow her to stay. So young Sergei is on his own while his mother becomes bereft and her marriage falls apart.
The film is visually captivating and psychologically rich. Sergei’s story says as much about the impact of divorce as it says about dance. The film also challenges conventional wisdom about parental ambitions and definitions of success. Sergei typically asks his family to skip performances, explaining that his mother makes him anxious. But when he allows his family to watch him dance for the first time in years, there is an unexpected moment after the show when his grandmother congratulates and comforts him, commenting with care about how hot and sweaty he looks. She beams with pride while her gentle embrace penetrates the armor of his many tattoos. He offers her a shy, boyish smile. For a flash, Sergei experiences the parenting his family sacrificed to grant him access and opportunity.
Dancer raises tough questions about art, success, family, culture and divorce. When Sergei takes the stage, each magical movement screams of the suffering of his people. He struggles with the internal urge to create meaningful art and the physical and psychological pain that inform his artistic process. Sergei decides to choreograph with a final dance filmed in Hawaii to Hozier’s Take Me To Church and filmed to perfection by David LaChapelle. Here, Sergei creates on his own terms and the result is reason alone to see his visually and emotionally memorable film.