A review of Steven Cantor's incredible documentary on the life of Sergei Polunin.

Dancer: Documentary Review

The first time someone showed me the video of Sergei Polunin dancing to Hozier’s Take Me to Church on YouTube, I was pretty sick of dance.

Not something you’ll hear me say often. However, at that point in time I was in my final year of University, halfway through my dissertation and had come to associate the majority of contemporary dance choreography with essays, a stuffy room in Roehampton library and the taste of stale Jaeger. I never wanted to see another piece of dance again- even if it was directed by David LaChapelle.

Obviously, I watched the entire thing about 5 times in a row, without stopping.

It’s a brilliant piece. Superb choreography (by Jade Hale Christofi) that brilliantly shows Polunin’s personality, as well as his artistry. That’s no surprise – Polunin and Christofi are best friends, who met and lived together throughout their studies at the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden. There are probably few people that know him better.

I wish I could have watched Dogwoof’s documentary on Sergei Polunin’s life at least one more time. Unfortunately when you’re in the cinema, viewing a live screening from the London Palladium, it’s a little bit more tricky than simply pressing replay on your laptop.

Any documentary on Polunin would be worth a watch if only for the mesmerizing clips where you get to see him dance. Steven Cantor’s Dancer, however, is much more than that.

Four years of filming, plus a host of home videos show the journey that Polunin took from becoming a young boy at a local dance school in a small village in Ukraine, to an adolescent superstar, youngest ever principal with London’s Royal Ballet.

You also get some perspective on how and why Polunin, at 22 years old, suddenly quit the position that most ballet dancers would give their right arm for. The media backlash that followed this catastrophe branded Polunin as the “Bad Boy” of ballet. News coverage of drug abuse, wild parties and not to mention the endless tattoos, made Polunin a household name far more than his pirouettes had. Finally, thanks to Dancer, we get to see a different perspective.

It’s a well made and engaging documentary. Interviews with family and friends are insightful, but sensitive and it is interesting to learn about the paths that Polunin took after he broke his chains with the Royal Ballet. The whole thing seems to lead up to the social-media sensation that was Take Me To Church, which seems like an apt climax for a film exploring self-expression, freedom and the constraints of the ballet industry.
I would have liked a more in-depth look into Polunin’s time studying at the Royal Ballet School. The importance of mental health support for young dancers is a recurring theme, and was highlighted in the post-show Q&A by Polunin himself- it is something that he is clearly very passionate about promoting. However I feel like the actual day-to-day life of young ballet students in such a high pressure environment, as well as Polunin’s own psychological struggles, although talked about, were not explored.

The post-show Q&A felt uncomfortable and unstructured. Polunin came across as humble, funny and well-mannered and I enjoyed hearing him speak about his new venture, Project Polunin. It’s a collaborative initiative aiming to create new work for ballet by working with contemporary artists and musicians for stage and screen. It would’ve been nice to hear more questions on that, rather than find out which tattoo was his favourite (to which, he wittily responded; “do you have a favourite finger?”).

The documentary, though, is interesting, funny and heartfelt. It instigates a much needed investigation into the pressures placed upon young dancers, whilst also taking a step towards streamlining the world of ballet into mainstream popular culture- film in particular. Hopefully we’ll see more of Polunin on our screens in the near future.

A review of Steven Cantor's incredible documentary on the life of Sergei Polunin.


  • Heather

    Hi Roslyn,

    I saw this last week with the live Q&A….What a humble guy! I am sure he will leave a legacy for dancers and help provide them with support and management…he now has the stage to make change in a very different way.

    Awesome film…do go see!

    • Roslyn Rachel

      Hi Heather! I absolutely agree, so humble but there’s no denying that he has a lot of power to make great changes to the dance industry 🙂 Thanks for reading and I hope you’re well!

  • Debbie Jinks

    This was a clear and unbiased review of a great dancer. The way you wrote it made me want to see him dance. The YouTube video was a nice touch and I felt you articulated the whole post well. Well done Roslyn.

    • Roslyn Rachel

      Thanks Debbie! I really appreciate your feedback and I’m very glad you enjoyed the review. Polunin really is a marvel to watch for dancers and non-dancers alike!

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