For a dancer, dance is all consuming. They spend their days in the studio or the gym endlessly refining their instrument. A single injury can instantly end their career and the life they have led from a young age. There is a fragility to their careers–only the very best manage to continue to perform past their thirties. Even most successful dancers live paycheque to paycheque. To just survive in the world of dance, it must be your life. Talent is a distant second.
Dancer meets these realities head on. At the centre of the film is Sergei Polunin, a supremely talented ballet dancer from the Ukraine. Polunin holds the distinction of becoming the youngest male principle dancer at England’s Royal Ballet at the age of 21. Polunin is widely considered to be one of the greatest talents of his generation, however, after only two years dancing professionally with the Royal Ballet, he suddenly quit the company.
Polunin’s story is far from unique. His family sacrificed everything to get him the training and education he needed to reach his potential. He is also not the first dancer to suffer from depression or substance abuse problems. However, unlike most dancers, Polunin has never been quiet about his struggles or his disillusionment with the art form and its severe restrictions. As a result, Dancer is more than just another dance documentary designed to highlight the beauty of the art form. It also serves as something more that another story of a tortured artist. Instead, director Steven Cantor has struck a balance between extolling the virtues and marvels of the ballet while condemning some of its more restrictive traditions.
The final film is as engaging as its subject is when he dances. Cantor has managed to compile an impressive amount of archival footage of Polunin dancing from a young age to chronical his development as a dancer. This footage alone makes Dancer worth watching. It is amazing to see Polunin progress from a gangly, energetic child to a stunning, statuesque man. The footage usually includes other dancers as well, which emphasises just how talented Polunin is. The kids he is dancing beside are all prodigies in their own right. And he blows them away.
The use of the archival footage also allows Cantor to show the progression of Polunin’s relationship with his art. As a young boy, he clearly loved to dance. It wasn’t something that was forced on him simply because he had ability. Then, slowly, it becomes work. The repetition and ridged structure slowly eating away at his enjoyment until dancing become something he does, because what other choice does he have?
There is something supremely courageous about Polunin and his candour with Cantor. He sugarcoats nothing, fully engaging with the darker side of what it means to be an artist. His movement is extraordinary. He is weightless and effortless when he dances—the external visual a direct contrast to the weight of expectations and the ballet eventually place on him. It is this interplay, and the willingness to let it happen, that makes Dancer an extraordinary film.