Change of Heart For Ballet’s Bad Boy, Sergei Polunin, – Sergei Polunin
Change of Heart For Ballet’s Bad Boy, Sergei Polunin,

Change of Heart For Ballet’s Bad Boy, Sergei Polunin,

Sergei Polunin
 Sergei Polunin became a YouTube star, dancing to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” in a video by David LaChapelle, the photographer and filmmaker.  He credits this video with his change of heart.   Credit:  David LaChapelle/British Broadcasting Corporation and Polunin Ltd., via Sundance Selects

“Take Me To Church” Video Brings About Change

LONDON — The first image is of a man kneeling in a misty white light, his head bowed, his tattoo-covered, muscular torso swaying rhythmically, side to side. Then, we see an opera house, the audience arriving, musicians warming up. Eventually to a backstage dressing room where the dancer — Sergei Polunin — in makeup and costume, is in his dressing room, taking various pills and potions. “Soon I am going to be so high,” he says gleefully, doing quick jumps to warm up, in front of a mirror.

Dancer,” a documentary film by Steven Cantor that opens Friday, Sept. 9, encapsulates the contradictions and anomalies that have made the Ukranian-born Mr. Polunin, 26, a controversial, even notorious, figure in the ballet world, and also a viral sensation whose “Take Me to Church” video is edging toward 16 million views on YouTube.

The Prodigy

The greatest dancer of his generation.  A once-in-a-lifetime talent.  Better than Nureyev.  No, better than Nijinsky. These are some of the things written and said about Mr. Polunin, both during his years training at the Royal Ballet School, then after joining the Royal Ballet in 2007.  Soon, three years later, at 19, he became the company’s youngest-ever principal dancer, rapidly taking on most of the major male roles in the classical repertory, to increasing acclaim.

Two years later, with no warning, he walked out. In interviews, he said he was tired of boring rehearsals, the punishing discipline and the physical stress of ballet, and dissatisfied with its meager financial rewards. He talked about the tattoo parlor that he co-owned in north London, tweeted provocatively about drugs and parties, and said he wanted a change, to live a normal life, perhaps get into films. The British media, shocked and titillated by Mr. Polunin’s sudden role reversal, christened him the bad boy of ballet, and the dance press wrung its collective hands over what had gone wrong.

“I was sort of sabotaging myself,” Mr. Polunin said in an interview over lunch.  Fine-boned and soft-voiced, he ate steak with steamed vegetables, drank orange juice and seemed younger than his 26 years.  “At the time, it was kind of funny. I would tweet something as a joke, and it would hit the media.  I sort of played with the bad-boy thing, and I gave a couple of interviews where I said stupid things. Generally I was very happy with the Royal, who gave me everything. But I had worked so hard to be a principal, and when I got there, I felt, I can’t afford a car. I felt I’d been betrayed. My fantasy about being the best, a celebrity, was all wrong.”

The “Bad Boy Of Ballet”

Mr. Polunin suddenly achieved a celebrity of sorts in Britain.  The wrong sort.  Offers of work, initially pressing, slipped away.

It was around this time that Mr. Polunin met the film producer Gabrielle Tana, who had optioned Julie Kavanagh’s biography of Nureyev and was looking for dancers for the film.  Although Ms. Tana, and Ralph Fiennes, who will direct the biopic (production begins next year) decided that Mr. Polunin wasn’t right for the role, Ms. Tana was fascinated by what she learned of Mr. Polunin’s story, which Ms. Kavanagh documented in a long 2012 profile:  his difficult early life growing up in the depressed town of Kherson in Ukraine; the family sacrifices made for his career; his move at 13, speaking no English, to the Royal Ballet School; his early success and fast burnout.

“I thought it was not just a compelling narrative but also the opportunity to capture someone brilliant in the prime of their career,” Ms. Tana said in an interview.  “We didn’t really know what it would be, and Sergei was very wary at first. Therefore we were scared we would lose him.”

To Russia For A Change

By mid-2012, Mr. Polunin, who had been hoping to perform with American Ballet Theater, had moved to Moscow to dance with the Stanislavsky Theater.  Although Mr. Polunin adored working with the company’s director, Igor Zelensky, who had recruited him, he found himself once again restless and discontented 18 months later.  “It became more repetitive, more about making money, somehow for wrong reasons,” Mr. Polunin said.  “I didn’t want to be comfortable, I wanted to challenge myself.  I quit, again, not in a good way.”

To take Mr. Polunin out of the ballet box, Ms. Tana suggested he work on a new segment for the documentary with David LaChapelle, the photographer and filmmaker who had directed “Rize,” a documentary about the street dance krumping.  “I thought, fine, this will be my last dance, my goodbye to ballet,” Mr. Polunin recalled.  Mr. LaChapelle suggested Hozier’s song “Take Me to Church,” and filmed the dance (choreographed by Mr. Polunin’s Royal Ballet School friend Jade Hale-Christofi) in the bare white space of the filmmaker’s studio in Hawaii.  In ripped flesh-colored tights, his tattoos and muscles equally on display, Mr. Polunin is presented as a kind of sacrificial figure, leaping and crouching in an unabashed display of raw emotion as well as powerful physicality.

The emotion was very real.  “I cried for hours” during filming, he said.  Throughout the day, I realized I’m leaving behind everything I have learned, my teachers, the audience.  Finally, I kept thinking about my mum I’m letting down.”

“Dancer” The Documentary

It was those expectations, and the family drama behind Mr. Polunin’s actions, that became the crux of “Dancer” — a surprise for those expecting a more sensational tale.  “It became a story of sacrifice on every level,” said Mr. Cantor, an Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentary director whom Ms. Tana approached in 2014.

“His family did anything they could to get this golden child to the top of his craft,” Mr. Cantor added.  “His father moved to work in Portugal and his grandmother to Greece.  Further breaking the family unit, his mother moved with him to one room in Kiev so that he could go to a better ballet school.”

Mr. Cantor said that he thought the extensive conversations he had with Mr. Polunin during the filmmaking process were cathartic for the dancer.  “It became clear that he was dancing as hard as he could to get his family back together. Then his parents got divorced, and finally he felt, what am I dancing for?  He consequently lost his will and went off the rails.”

Although Mr. Cantor had interviewed Mr. Polunin’s relatives extensively and shot footage in Kherson, his family-centered approach to the documentary received an enormous lift when, late in the day, the dancer’s mother, Galina Polunina, sent him “a treasure trove” of home videos.  “It’s astonishing that they even had a video camera,” Mr. Cantor said.  “They had no money, and it wasn’t common then.”  The touching footage of Mr. Polunin as a young child and outstandingly talented teenager, his desperate need to be best, his vulnerable cockiness, especially lend a new and touching slant to the well-known bad-boy narrative.

The Change Of Heart

The film also documents Mr. Polunin’s change of heart about ballet after making the “Take Me to Church” video.  Since then, he has continued to dance with the Stanislavsky company and the Novosibirsk Ballet (also run by Mr. Zelensky, who is now heading the Munich Ballet), has performed at La Scala, and has been in a program of contemporary work with his girlfriend of 18 months, the ballerina Natalia Osipova, who is a principal dancer at the Royal Ballet.  He would especially like, he said, to perform there again.

The huge online success of the video was an important factor in his decision to keep dancing, Mr. Cantor said.  “I think it made him feel he could reach people, and gave him the courage to go on,” he said.  “We had thought maybe it was the end of the story, however, it was not.”

Mr. Polunin found “Dancer” very hard to watch the first time.  “It made me feel really sad,” he said.  “But it is all true.”

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