Outtakes... "Dancer" and what might have been, with Sergei Polunin
Dancer: The Outtakes

Dancer: The Outtakes

Julie Kavanaugh goes behind the scenes of a documentary recording the life of Sergei Polunin.

By Julie Kavanaugh For Dancing Times, March 2017 issue

 

An idea is born

In September 2012, I was approached by the Dutch documentary director Aliona van der Horst.  She’d read a long article I had written on Sergei Polunin.  Aliona thought the story of the Ukrainian boy burdened with a phenomenal talent would make a moving film.  I knew that terrific archive material existed.  Galina Polunin, Sergei’s mother, had photographed and filmed all the key moments of his childhood.   I knew as well that he would be safe in the hands of the Van der Horst, who is half-Russian and makes poetic, human, award-winning documentaries.

Additionally, it didn’t seem right to make a Polunin documentary that failed to portray the dancer as the extraordinary classicist he is.   His every step is a blueprint of balletic perfection.  A specialist’s eye was needed.  I wrote telling Aliona that I was married to the film dance filmmaker Ross MacGibbon and that we’d decided to take this on ourselves.  While working on a Ralph Fiennes profile, I got to know the Coriolanus producer Gabrielle Tana and we become friends.  Gaby loved ballet, understood Polunin’s importance, and promised to make our documentary idea happen.  Three months later the three of us flew to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, where Serge was performing, to discuss a shooting schedule.

 

Igor Zelensky stepped up

He was under contract then to the Stanislavsky ballet in Moscow whose director was the charismatic Russian dancer Igor Zelensky, also director of the Novosibirsk’s ballet company and now in charge of Munich’s Bavarian State Ballet where Polunin is a “permanent guest.”  After his dramatic bolt from The Royal Ballet, when the other major companies had shied away from signing up a dancer then regarded as a volatile delinquent Zelensky had stepped in.  “After I left, everything started to close up.” Sergei said, “people started to turn away from me. Igor really helped me get out of this darkness.” 

Zelensky, whose face  Serge has tattooed on his shoulder as a tribute, became a father/brother/mentor figure while his wife and children were his Moscow family.  With his European sophistication combined the Russian machismo and a wild side of his own, Zelensky was a vital role model, instilling in his protégé the importance of self-discipline.  It soon grew into a symbiotic pact with Zelensky creating a Polunin repertory with masterworks by Kenneth McMillan and Fredrick Ashton.  The young dynamo’s presence adding luster and excitement to the Stanislavsky.  In Novosebirsk Zelinsky was able to keep Serge performing and for big money too (one Nutcracker solo earned him more, he told me, than two months pay in The Royal Ballet). 

 

Even in a bad red costume, Sergei looked noble and refined

We watched him the first night in the Gazprom-sponsored gala in Novosibirsk’s “Siberian Coliseum” – the largest theatre in Russia. it was a “Snow Forum” with a blizzard soundtrack, snowflake lighting effects in the auditorium and a performance consisting of winter-themed extracts from musicals, operas, and ballets –  mostly The Nutcracker.   Even in a bad red costume, Sergei looked noble and refined, but was so reined in during his manege by the inept, ponytailed conductor who hardly looked at the stage, that the audience’s slow handclap soon petered out. 

I found myself thinking of a remark Ashton once made when we were talking about why Rudolf Nureyev had chosen The Royal Ballet as his home company:  “A beautiful jewel needs a beautiful setting.”  Because by contrast, the State Academic Opera And Ballet Theater, with its rickety sets and brash lighting appeared as tarnished costume jewelry at best. 

 

A motley lot

Physically and technically, the dancers were motley lot, their mime movements almost comically old school.  “They don’t know how to be natural,” said Sergei, who like Nureyev in his day, was breathing new life into the 19th-century classics.  He was preparing for Giselle while we were there, saying that he’d had to stop the make-up woman from powdering over his brows and painting clownish black arcs in the middle of his forehead. 

Outside in the snow banked-streets the temperature was -24°C, but Sergei virtually lived in the theater, where he and Zelensky had been given backstage apartments.  Igor’s was smart and minimalist.  Sergei’s not much more than a boarding school cell with chipboard cupboards and a bed covered with a garish duvet and strewn clothes.  But he loved Novosibirsk, which was less lonely for him in than Moscow, and we planned to come back and film his cocooned existence with Igor, as well as make good use of the theater’s vast blackened stage.

 

Galina sees Sergei dance professionally for the first time

The following month we shot the first footage in London.   The Royal Ballet was reviving Marguerite and Armand to mark Tamara Rojo’s farewell season with the company and Kevin O’Hare had invited Sergei back to partner her.  This was a huge deal for him. A comeback begging to be recorded, as well as what I saw as the perfect opportunity to carry out a promise I made to his mother.  I’ve already written about my friendship with Galina Polunina, and how I invited her to London to see him for the first time on the Royal Opera House stage. 

That night, sitting beside Galina, as she clutched my arm when the curtain rose, her eyes shining with tears, has to be one of the most memorable ballet-going experiences; but more to the point, it gave us a tremendously powerful scene for the film – one which our cameraman, positioned in the stall circle, and following Galina through the pass door onto the stage, caught in soul-stirring detail.

“I’ve always been scared of contemporary”

In the summer of 2013 Serge was back in London, appearing with the Stanislavsky company in Roland Petit’s Coppelia.  A kitsch, mawkish version which also happens to be an exhilarating showpiece for a male star. Galina came over for it and so did a director/producer acquaintance of Gaby from the US named Steven Cantor.  Tall and rangy, he talked earnestly about the necessity of a Formula and a Journey for the documentary, but had our ear as he was offering to put a large chunk of the budget. 

We now had the funds to commission an eight minute piece by Russell Maliphant, and over a week in August we recorded Sergei working with the choreographer for first-time. “I’ve always been scared of contemporary,” Sergei told me. “For me ballet is so much easier.  It’s unusual for me to go low to the ground – I feeling going to pull everything.”  Even from the first day, however, there was a rapport between the pair, the atmosphere in Maliphant’s north Acton studio almost Zen-like.  

 

Original idea for Dancer focused on artistry

To begin with Sergei was “just trying to copy what Russell’s doing” and having trouble mastering a tricky for swivel but the falls and capoeira-inspired movements came naturally to him, and ini close-ups and wafting his arms beautifully framed his Slavic face.  Maliphant’s idea was to exploit his virtuosity – “the great leaps and turns, those explosive moves.”  – but blend it with other techniques.   “We’ll be dipping into the classical, but I want to play around its edges, and how we go into it and come out of it is something I like to explore.”  

Ross wanted the making a solo to be linking device throughout the film, and planned to shoot the finished piece on location with multiple cameras using time-spliced technique – a freezing of 24 frames a second that would capture and hold the exquisite purity of shapes Polunin makes in space.

 

And then came the tattoos

One August evening we filmed Sergei’s London family, talking to his Royal Ballet School friend Jade Hale-Christofi; his brother Phil, whom Sergei described as a “gang member” but who seemed soft as a kitten; their Greek father and maternal North American mother whose suburban home in been a refuge to surrogate and his most troubled times. 

A few minutes away was the tattoo parlor he’d co-owned with Anthony Lammin, a cool, confident black guy who’d created a number of Sergei’s tattoos.   The latest was to be a replica of a pretty church in Kherson, where Sergei had been “christened.”   To the buzzing of the drill, we filmed Lammin at work on Sergei’s back.  There was a piece of kitchen paper on each thigh to catch the dripping sweat off his armpits, but his dancer pain threshold is so high he could talk to the camera naturally, without a flinch.

 

Nikolai Priadchenko and what might have been

In the autumn of 2013 we traveled to Ukraine to film the backstory.  The trip had been prompted by an invitation for Sergei to perform Giselle in Kiev with the Bolshoi Ballet’s Ukrainian-born star Svetlana Zakharova.  A double comeback this time.  After their press conference he visited Kiev’s ballet academy were he been trained as a child.  He was visibly moved by the “same smells and faces.”  

In Giselle rehearsals he was coached by his first mentor Nikolai Priadchenko, a wirey man with thick gray hair and leathery skin, who’d prepared Serge for his Royal Ballet School audition, taught him variations for European competitions, and passed on the combination of romantic softness and danseur noble imperiousness that defined his own performances as a company star. 

 

“If I had him every day, I’d be on a different level”

Priadchenko had been horrified to hear that Sergei had walked out of The Royal Ballet.  ”It’s not a company to be left.  It was his base” and on camera was visibly shocked when the dancer confessed to hardly ever taking company class.  Among his teachers only Priadchenko,  Sergei said, was “constantly critical,” something he admitted he badly needed.  “I work by myself, I mark things and nobody tells me anything.  So I’m trying in a way to lie to people – pretending I know what I’m doing, but really I don’t.   Nicolai knows that and tells me off in rehearsals.   He wants to correct me show me; show me something new.  I try to hold onto the key moments that I remember, but it’s not the same.  If I had him every day, I’d be on a different level.”  (Sadly for Sergei, Priadchenko died six months later.)

 

Home to Kherson

From Cosmopolitan Kiev we took the overnight train to Kherson.  Kherson seemed a world away especially in its outskirts were Vladimir Polunin lives with his mother.  Sergei’s adoring, pillowy grandmother, who’d got up at 5 AM to make borscht for him, was there along with Galina’s mother, who was strikingly more sophisticated than Vladimír’s.  Vladimir is a gentle, handsome man, who answers difficult questions with touching frankness, as did the two “babushki” sitting side by side.

 

Where it all began

In town we filmed the gymnasium where Sergei trained from the age of six.   His coach was interviewed about the qualities that could’ve made him a professional.  Sergei’s first ballet teacher put on a special display for him.  He was dragged from his seat onto the stage by the pupils.   After improvising to a melancholy Pavarotti aria he spontaneously lifted his teacher off her feet and swung her horizontally round and round. It was a euphoric moment, but there was one more indelible experience left.  

 

The healer

Sergei had suggested we film a session with his healer, a former taxi driver.  His eyes were as glassy as a blind man’s.  He spent about 15 minutes on Sergei, muttering as he rocked him back and forwards, which may or may not have produced a result.  All I know is that it urged Sergei to have a go.   He translated the soft torrent of words spoken by the healer.  I was astounded by accuracy of what I was hearing.  Sergei wasn’t surprised.  Struck with pneumonia as a child he’d been discharged after six weeks in hospital as there was nothing more to be done.  It was Galina’s desperation that first took him to this healer who cured him within a fortnight.

The Dancer outtakes and what might have been

The last day of the shoot, November 20, was Sergei’s birthday.  On the overnight train we had a celebration buffet supper.  We toasted him with plastic cups of warm, sweet, Russian “champagne.”  We did not know it at this time, but this was the end of our collaboration.  Gabby Tana had become enraptured by the work of the photographer and music video maker David LaChapelle.  She decided that she wanted a more commercial film.  In a video of a re-released Freddie Mercury /  Michael Jackson track, LaChapelle dressed Sergei up in combat gear.  He stripped it off while running and leaping over the Hawaiian terrain and into a sunlit white barn. 

This was refined into the now famous Hozier “Take Me To Church” solo, an internet sensation, and today, the centerpiece of the documentary Dancer.  Aimed at the massive YouTube audience, the film has given Sergei the global exposure he craved.  Steven Cantor replaced Ross as director, and in focusing on Polunin’s angst, and not his artistry, Cantor created a portrait of a hugely gifted, mixed-up kid.  Our vision for the documentary, while telling the affecting family story, and filming his movements with innovative expertise, would’ve enshrined forever a great dancer in his prime.


 

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