Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 21, 2016 7:27 pm 
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The rise and fall and rise of Sergei Polunin

Documentaries at their best are unique in spirit, execution, and subject matter, but they remain at bottom packages of information. They tell us something we want to know. And anyone interested in dance wants to know about Sergei Vladimirovich Polunin, the extraordinary Ukrainian ballet dancer who has been compared to - well, you name it, Baryshnikov, Nureyev, even the legendary Nijinsky. Polunin just turned 27, and already he seems to have several lifetimes behind him. But does he have his whole career ahead of him, or his whole career behind him? Never mind; the American filmmaker Steven Cantor knew he had exciting material for a film. That was clear when Polunin rose like a meteor through Britain's Royal Ballet school to become the principal dancer - the one audiences waited in line to get tickets for - and then, in less than three years, left the company. But for Cantor, it got better, because the drama was still going on, and then some. In several times leaving ballet, Polunin has drawn millions to it for the first time. Is this documentary unique in execution? Not really. But it's fascinating, thrilling, and even potentially addictive.

Cantor got lucky in several ways. He became a witness to a special filmed dance in Hawaii that was going to be Polunin's farewell to the art. Then the film, by David LaChapelle, appeared as "Sergei Polunin, 'Take Me to Church' by Hozier, Directed by David LaChapelle" on YouTube, Polunin ungarnished, the tattoos on his torso showing vividly. It went viral, getting (by now) 17 million hits. (We don't know how many are repeats, but it's likely many aren't satisfied with watching those anguished, spectacular four minutes just once.) As ballet this isn't Polunin at his best. But that's not the point. It shows a (brilliant, wonderful to watch) dancer acting out his personal conflicts.

This was just two years ago. With one thing and another, doing "Take Me to the Church," choreographed by best friend and Royal Ballet colleague Jade Hale-Christofi, made Polunin change his mind about giving up dancing. Another stroke of luck for Cantor was that though little Sergei's parents were dirt poor, from the depressed town of Khersen, Ukraine, they had filmed their son generously, providing a rich visual record of the boy's performances and practices first as a gymnast age 4 to 8, then as a dancer, from the age of eight - even footage of Sergei at 13 on his first flight to London. There is plenty of narration from both parents in Russian and from Polunin, who is fluent in English and speaks with complete candor.

The drama of Polunin's early career comes from his parents and grandparents and the way his extraordinary gifts somehow broke apart the family. His father went to Portugal and one grandmother to Greece to find work while his mother dropped everything to support the boy at the Kiev ballet school. The decision was that he had to study abroad and his audition at the Royal Ballet School got him in. Visa troubles forced his mother to leave him alone there; for a whole year she was lost, without what had become her reason for being. Sergei was bumped forward three years at the Royal Ballet School. His leaps were higher, his turns more breathtaking, than anybody else's, and he worked harder than anybody else. At 15 and 16, he triumphed already. But his parents divorced. At 19, in 2009, he became one of the Royal Ballet's youngest Principals. He was a huge star. He was fabulous.

But the divorce, and being so much on his own, hurt Polunin's motivation, and he also turned into something of a bad boy. Twitter entries recount his all-night partying, tattoos (and he co-owns a tattoo parlor in London), and cocaine, finding it too late to go to bed. That was part of his stardom, the "bad boy of ballet" image, plus the verve of his dancing, in which he always improvised new, creative elements in every scene and phrase. He had dramatic tattoos and scars all over his torso. And watch closely: on one ankle clearly inscribed are the letters Ἀχιλλεύς, Achilles in Greek.

This movie is hot stuff: it all happened so recently, and the story is far from over. It was only four years ago, in 2012, that Polunin made headlines in England with his decision to quit the Royal Ballet at 22, when he was their biggest star. He said the life was too restrictive; he also was disappointed when he realized that star athletes, for instance, were much more lavishly rewarded than ballet dancers. When this happened, other companies avoided him as too risky: he'd have liked to join a company in New York. He had to go to Russia, but at first it was a big comedown: he was only the star of a TV dance show in Moscow. The Russian ballet audience is the world's most demanding. But he won their approval. And Igor Zelensky, director of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Musical Theatre as well as one of its Principals, believed in him. Zelensky gave him space to work again on a big stage as guest artist - plenty of opportunity, but no strings.

For 18 months it was good, but then it began to feel "just like London" for Polunin, "not a step up, but a side-step."

The film revels in its constant flow of vivid footage and some of the best comes here, footage of the dressing room, of Polunin preparing for and after performances, showing the struggle, the fatigue, the pain, the failing motivation. And he recalls he had originally wanted to be, and excelled as, a gymnast. "I didn't choose ballet. It was my mum's choice," Polunin says. Can we believe this? But it shows his ambivalence.

When Polunin and Jade meet on Venice Beach in Los Angeles to discuss what was to be his "last dance," it feels a little like dramatizing. But when Polunin says he was crying most of the time during the many hours LaChapelle took to shoot "Take Me to Church," can we question him? After this film shows LaChapelle's dance, with all its grace, torment, and spectacular leaps, Cantor shows other YouTube homages by kids. When you see a slightly chubby little boy grab his shoulder and rip it back and forth, copying one of the most inventive and distinctive gestures in "Take Me to Church," you realize Polunin has produced something iconic. These four minutes that have altered Polunin's decision could change others too.

So Sergei doesn't quit ballet. He decides to do a program of Jerome Robbins (with newly shaven head) at the Stanislavsky. For the first time he does what he never felt comfortable doing: he invites his father, his mother, and his grandmother. The movie ends with a group hug. Polunin and his career still remain a question mark. But Cantor's collaborative documentary has provided a lot for us to chew on. This is the work in progress of a life in progress, and also the story of a film within a film. As the Times' dance writer Gia Kourlas wrote, in her not-so-friendly review, "in some ways" the star of this film isn't Polunin, but the video he starred in. The currency of that video, still scoring lots of hits, gives Cantor's film unusual freshness and contemporaneity. But so does the mercurial, handsome, extravagantly talented and unpredictable Sergei Polunin. By the way, he'd like to go back to the Royal Ballet.

With best friends Jade Hale-Christofi abd Valentino Zuchetti, theater manager Salvatore Scalzo, and many others.

Dancer, 85 mins., in limited US release 16 Sept. 2016, now VOD (Amazon). Also shown at Zurich, London and Warsaw festivals. UK theatrical release 10 Mar. 2017.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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