On pointe

Sergei Polunin and Steven Cantor on Dancer.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Sergei Polunin with Steven Cantor on David LaChapelle, Jade Hale-Christofi with Hozier's Take Me To Church, and Ilan Eshkeri:
Sergei Polunin with Steven Cantor on David LaChapelle, Jade Hale-Christofi with Hozier's Take Me To Church, and Ilan Eshkeri: "Yes! I want to unite artists." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

In Steven Cantor's Dancer, Sergei Polunin burns bright with a ferocious energy. British Royal Ballet's youngest ever male principal dancer, Polunin, has been compared to Nureyev and dismissed as party boy by the media. The documentary, executive produced by Steve Coogan, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Christine Langan, Henry Normal, Jamie Schutz, and Nichola Martin, with producer Gabrielle Tana, creatively avoids neither side, and, with extensive access to the Polunin family and archival footage, paints a far more complex picture of the young man and his journey.

Sergei Polunin:
Sergei Polunin: "You cannot create more steps for ballet. Everything is already developed but you can freshen it up ..."

Growing up in Kherson, Southern Ukraine, where "everybody was poor," Sergei says, "you don't feel the difference." His mother Galina early on is informed about her baby's "flexible legs". She enrolls him for gymnastics training and later has the talented boy switch to ballet lessons when she realises that there may be a future for her son and the family beyond their circumstances.

In the documentary, Sergei's first dance teacher Galina Ivanovna explains how "we had to redo his muscles," and up he rises. In order for the boy to study at the prestigious Kiev Choreographic Institute, the family was torn apart. Sergei's father Vladimir went to work in Portugal, his grandmother Larissa in Greece. As far as the career was concerned, the sacrifices paid off.

We get a glimpse of Sergei and his mother arriving in London for the auditions at the Royal Ballet School - difficult to find "in the middle of a park" and compared by young Sergei to entering "Harry Potter world". The meteoric rise to the top of his profession came to an end in early 2012, when the 22-year-old walked out on his contract.

Dancer composer Ilan Eshkeri with Christine Evangelista on the Black Sea red carpet
Dancer composer Ilan Eshkeri with Christine Evangelista on the Black Sea red carpet Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

This is not the life I want, he is crying loud and clear. The search for self-discovery takes many paths - one of them being a dance choreographed by his friend and former colleague at the Royal Ballet, Jade Hale-Christofi, directed by David LaChapelle to the song Take Me to Church by Hozier. The world reacts to the video posted online beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

Now, in 2016, he is in a different place and his plans for the future include the entire dance community, not just himself. The most striking quality, when meeting Sergei in person, is his warmth and sincerity, a far cry from the labels attached to him in the past.

As I entered Obscured Pictures in Chelsea for my conversation with Sergei Polunin and Steven Cantor, Lucas greeted me at the door. Sergei was commenting to Steven that he didn’t want to get up this morning because he had such a nice dream. I made this my first question.

Anne-Katrin Titze: What was the dream about?

Sergei Polunin: It was something about a cat.

Sergei Polunin in Take Me To Church
Sergei Polunin in Take Me To Church

AKT: I actually have a question about the cat we see in the film. It's funny, I just met Lucas, the dog here and was told that he is "more like a cat." In the film, we see a cat twice, once when you are little. Is it the same one?

SP: That’s the same cat. It lived for 20 years.

Steven Cantor: That is something I didn’t even know. Your first question and I already learn something.

AKT: What’s the cat’s name?

SP: Dasha. It died like two years ago. I had it since I was four. I was like, I want a cat and I bet my mom was like, okay. 20 years later she was still looking after her.

AKT: You made an interesting decision on how to start the film with vials backstage. You, Sergei, say “It’s for the heart. It’s for energy. It’s a formula for the US Army.” And then we see you in the corridor with a cape. You come across a bit like a vampire.

SC: Getting to know Sergei making the film, I think he is such a gentle, kind, sensitive, nurturing soul and his reputation in the media was so the opposite of that. I was actually nervous to meet him. I thought he was going to be this mean, angry, tattooed Russian. And I was so surprised to meet this kind, thoughtful guy.

Steve Coogan, an executive producer on Dancer
Steve Coogan, an executive producer on Dancer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

I knew the final shot and I thought it would be interesting to start with the opposite of that, sort of the public impression that seemed to be at the time that he was this vampire and taking drugs. And then by the end, flip it on its head and make people realise that he’s just a little kid trying to do good in the world.

AKT: The film travels all over the globe with you.

SP: I really wanted the documentary to show the beauty of countries.

AKT: The trust between the two of you shows.

SC: I think it kind of unfolded organically. We’re both Scorpio. Sergei has been joking about that sort of thing.

AKT: You are not both born November 5, are you?

SC: No, I’m November 1.

Dancer poster at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Dancer poster at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

SP: I’m the 20th.

AKT: I’m asking because I just did a feature on a film about John Berger and Tilda Swinton and they bond on their shared birthday [in The Seasons In Quincy: Four Portraits Of John Berger].

SC: I’ve heard about that. No, we’re both a little reserved. It was a very organic get to know each other, get to trust each other. We didn’t go in with any idea like where things are going to go. I didn’t know any of his past story.

SP: Until the end, we didn’t know where it was going. Will it take a dark path or a light one? What do you want to bring to the planet, what do you want to bring to the world?

AKT: You mentioned about your childhood that “everybody was poor - you don’t feel the difference.”

SP: I mean as a child, you don’t really care. My mom probably did. As a kid, I enjoyed myself. It was the best time of my life. All you needed were the kids playing in the playground and good weather. Fruits on a tree growing. I didn’t really notice the poorness. I noticed it a little later when my mom was saying if you win this competition, you can get this or that. Or to use my good marks money to get some food - that affected me.

AKT: Talk about the editing of the music. I particularly liked the segue from piano, I suppose composed by Ilan Eshkeri, into the performance of Giselle.

SC: We had sort of three musical genres to try and blend. We had the composed pieces for the film and then we had traditional, classical ballet scores that Sergei dances to and then meeting Sergei who was kind of a rock ’n’ roll fan and rock 'n’ roll guy and I’m from that same background. So, immediately I thought we’re going to make a rock ’n’ roll ballet movie.

Lucas at Obscured Pictures
Lucas at Obscured Pictures Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I took a photograph of Ilan Eshkeri on the red carpet for Kevin Macdonald's Black Sea.

SP: Black Sea, yeah. He is really, really amazing. I want him to write a ballet. To compose a ballet, I think, we will do in the future. He did rock, he did movies - it would certainly be an interesting combination what he can do for ballet.

AKT: Great! Is that what’s coming up for you in the future?

SP: Yes! I want to unite artists. Interesting artists like David LaChapelle and Ilan and myself and hopefully Jade [Hale-Christofi] to choreograph and put this team together to create something special. Different artists from different genres to create a ballet. You cannot create more steps for ballet. Everything is already developed but you can freshen it up and shake the still water.

Coming up - Steven Cantor and Sergei Polunin behind the scenes on David LaChapelle and Hozier's Take Me To Church, tattoo memories, family and Project Polunin.

Sergei Polunin and Steven Cantor will present Dancer at the BFI London Film Festival on October 8 at 6:00pm and October 9 at 12:30pm.

Dancer is in cinemas in the US.

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