Steven Cantor/ USA/ 2016/ 85 mins
Available on DVD now.
A good documentary will pull you in and hold your attention whether you know anything about the subject matter or not. For most of us, ballet will fall firmly under topics about which we know nothing. Classical music is something we’re exposed to osmotically through film and advertising, but ballet is something that needs to be actively sought out. Steven Cantor’s Dancer manages to fascinate and engage with his profile of Ukranian “Bad Boy of Ballet”, Sergei Polunin, even as it frustrates and pirouettes around real analysis.
Polunin was a sensation when he became a principal dancer with The Royal Ballet at the age of nineteen; a feat previously unheard of. The documentary charts his progress from a young boy in a small Ukranian town to his stardom. It takes in his triumphs and his travails; quitting The Royal Ballet through burnout, exacerbated by excessive partying and cocaine intake, and his subsequent comeback with The Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.
Cantor’s documentary is a conventional rise-and-fall tale with an uplifting, redemptive arc. It uses standard talking head testimony from family members and friends, as well as old film footage from his youth. It chooses to keep the flair and fireworks for the breathtaking skill of Polunin himself. His talent is clear to see even among people who can only tell good from bad dancing if someone’s fallen flat on their arse. Cantor does a good job of detailing the sacrifices made by his family to support him, and which ultimately ended in his parents’ divorce and his virtual separation from them for years while he danced in London.
However, for all the detail Dancer never really gets beneath the skin of its subject. There are themes of surrogate families (his friends and mentors in Kiev, London and Moscow), the nature of obligation, and the search for an identity that are left tantalisingly unexplored. For all Polunin repeatedly states that he doesn’t want to be defined purely by his ballet – that that’s not all he is – we’re never given any insight into that else he may be. Even the title of the documentary undermines him. There are no details of his interests, or his personal life beyond his now heart-breaking strained relationship with the family he’s seen only infrequently for years.
On one hand, it’s admirable that Cantor never goes for an expose or sensationalised account of his subject, but there are parts of the story that are just glossed over. For example, the drug use is mentioned and then promptly dropped again. What effect did it have on his body? His dancing? Why the self-sabotage? It appears to the viewer that certain restrictions must have been put on Cantor before access was allowed. It certainly doesn’t derail the documentary, which is never less than interesting, but leaves only the faintest hint of who the man might be outside of the leotard.