Newspaper article International New York Times

Ballet's Bad Boy Has a Change of Heart ; Documentary Depicts Sergei Polunin as a Man of Contradictions

Newspaper article International New York Times

Ballet's Bad Boy Has a Change of Heart ; Documentary Depicts Sergei Polunin as a Man of Contradictions

Article excerpt

"Dancer," a documentary by Steven Cantor, depicts the contradictions and anomalies that have made Sergei Polunin a controversial figure in the ballet world.

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. Backstage, 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.

These images, from "Dancer," a documentary film by Steven Cantor that opens Friday, Sept. 9, encapsulate 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 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. 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 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."

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. …

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