(directed by Steven Cantor, 2016)
Classical ballet has always been a foreign country to me. Until Thursday, I hadn’t even heard of Sergei Polunin. But then I read a review of his current show at Sadler’s Wells which, in turn, led me to YouTube and his video Take Me to Church. Even on an iPhone screen, it took my breath away. I’m always alert to the beauty of the human form, and I admire dancing in which we see the body pushed to its limits, at the point where grace and power blend into a singular alchemy of expression. This four-minute piece, danced by a lone young man in ripped leggings in shafts of sunlight, was a ravishing spectacle of exactly that. What was the story behind this raw and emotional performance? Fortunately, this newly-released documentary was on hand to tell me more.
And, as I learned more, I realised I had heard of Polunin. He was the wild child of the Royal Ballet, who first made headlines when he became their youngest ever principal at the age of twenty and, two years later, made the news all over again when he walked out on them. I didn’t know about the cocaine, the partying, the tattoos or the depression. Polunin has crammed enough for an entire eventful lifetime into twenty-two years and this film, obviously made from a very sympathetic perspective, seeks to understand his dizzying trajectory. Combining home videos with clips of his numerous performances, as well as interviews with Polunin himself and his family, it paints a picture of a supremely talented young man who was placed under unbelievable pressure at too young an age.
Polunin was born in 1989 in Kherson in the south of Ukraine to parents who resolved to give him a better life than they had had. From the age of five he trained in gymnastics and, at six, he began to focus in on ballet. Realising his potential, his parents made the decision to send him to ballet school in Kiev, a choice which would have devastating effects on the family. School fees were dauntingly expensive and so, while Polunin’s mother moved with him to Kiev, his father went to work in Portugal and his grandmother to Greece, so that they could earn enough for their protege’s training. At eleven, Polunin auditioned for and was accepted into the Royal Ballet School in London, where his astonishing abilities led to him being fast-tracked three years ahead of his peers.
On the surface, this was a fairy-tale come true. But the interviews with the family reveal a grimmer side. Polunin was aware, from the time he moved to Kiev, that his entire family was relying on him. He had to be the best, he had to succeed. He says he used to dream of doing well so that he could bring his family back together again. It’s such a burden to place on a child, especially because the family’s fate was out of Polunin’s hands. After years of enforced separation, his parents divorced while he was at the Royal Ballet School and his dream fell apart. In retrospect, it was a breakdown waiting to happen. What’s remarkable is that Polunin, his parents and his grandmother all speak about events with great candour and dignity. Polunin’s father comes across as especially sympathetic: a man who clearly loves his son, who decided to move away to help him and, as a result, felt that he was gradually being pushed out of his brilliant child’s life.
The problem with being a child prodigy is that, once you’ve reached the top, there’s nowhere else to go and you don’t even get the chance to ease off. As Polunin notes, he has to dance every day otherwise his muscles seize up, but if he does dance every day, then his shoulders constantly ache. There’s no time for a social life, no time for friends beyond those you make among your classmates (fortunately Polunin seems to have had some strong friends there), and no time for anything of your own. Lacking a rock-solid family, Polunin seems to have funnelled everything into his dancing, training twice as hard as any of his classmates and being constantly pushed by teachers keen to help him reach his full potential. The documentary gives the impression that he snapped because he didn’t see the point of staying longer at the Royal Ballet, doing the same sorts of things over and over again. Insanely talented, he swiftly grew bored with the same old repertoire.
After leaving the Royal Ballet, Polunin found that his temperamental reputation put off potential employers in the US and he returned to Russia. Here, humiliatingly, he had to start all over again. There’s almost unbelievable footage of this Royal Ballet principal, hailed in London as the new Nureyev, having to take part in a Strictly-Come-Dancing style ballet show to get his name known in Russia. The ’10’s awarded to him by the judges seem almost patronising. But it worked: he found a mentor in the former ballet dancer Igor Zelensky, who helped get him noticed as a principal dancer in Moscow. There are awe-inspiring clips of him in Spartacus, a role which is the antithesis of the Royal Ballet’s pretty, polite princes. Full of fiery passion, he dances with an agonised muscularity which informs the choreography developed by his friend Jade Hale-Christofi for Take Me to Church.
Intended as a message for his fans, a farewell to dancing, this video does away with the poise of Polunin’s classical repertoire. It’s raw, open, autobiographical: a man struggling with demons within and with the demands of the world outside, trapped by his success. Directed by David LaChapelle, it’s a film fully conscious of its appeal, lingering on Polunin’s lithe body as it arcs, twists and shows its disdain for gravity. It not only hit the spot with existing fans, but converted a whole new swathe of them. Two months after its upload to YouTube, it had already been viewed ten million times.
When I went to see the documentary, the audience was almost entirely female: noticeable but not, I think, surprising. Polunin already has a massive fan club worldwide and the documentary shows wide-eyed ballet girls watching him rehearse from the edge of the stage, covertly filming him on their phones, along with shots of him running the stage-door gauntlet, signing autographs and obliging for selfies. Even if the film shows him coming to terms with himself and his past, there’s still something about the idea of a wounded soul that’s very attractive. It’s that eternal lure of the so-called ‘bad boy’: the tempestuous but emotionally sensitive creature who’s just waiting for the love of a good woman. Although Polunin actually now has such a woman: his fellow Royal Ballet principal Natalia Osipova. The documentary was made just before they got together. But that doesn’t stop London ladies’ genteel hearts being moved by the irresistible lure of a handsome young man who looks like a Greek god and dances like a fallen angel.
It’s not (just) about aesthetic pleasure, though. The documentary is well-made, leaning a tiny bit on the hagiographic side, but giving a rich picture of this appealing young hothead. I was especially impressed by the variety of the home videos: Polunin’s parents filmed him from the very beginning, and he took a video camera with him to London, so we have candid (and often blurry) film of him from childhood onwards. Shrewdly edited, the documentary comments on the psychological impact of training so intensely from such a young age, and the ongoing strain emotionally and physically for dancers. There are telling backstage shots of Polunin during the intervals of Spartacus, where he sits half-dazed, his feet bruised and calloused, visibly dragging up his courage to go back out again. And yet there are also moments which show the utter pleasure that dancing can bring, when he seems to effortlessly rise into the air, like Icarus reaching for the sun.
Polunin’s current show at Sadler’s Wells has had rather poor reviews, I’m sorry to say, with many seeing it as a vanity project, but I do hope he’ll dance more in London in the future. I might even be persuaded to attend a bona fide classical ballet if he does. It turns out he’s also having a go at an acting career, with a role in the forthcoming film of Murder on the Orient Express. In the meantime, I’m just going to enjoy the Take Me to Church video, which I thoroughly recommend if you have four minutes to spare in your day.