Dancing to his Own Tune – Sergei Polunin (Film Review)


IT is a tribute to ballet dancer Sergei Polunin that he has rebuilt his career so successfully after sensationally quitting The Royal Ballet nearly six years ago – claiming he was burnt out.

Now aged 28, the handsome – and heavily tattooed – Ukrainian is establishing himself as a budding film star with roles in Murder on the Orient Express, Ralph Fiennes’s White Crow (based on Nureyev’s defection from the Soviet Union in 1961) and Red Sparrow. He has also set up a dance company, Project Polunin, which in early December performed at the Coliseum to mixed reviews. He seems to have found love too in Natalia Osipova, a major ballet star in her own right.

It is an incredible turn around in fortunes for the prodigal dance star who at age 19 became The Royal Ballet’s youngest principal, only to walk out three years later amid rumours of drug taking and bad behaviour.

This revival in brand Polunin is not covered by Steve Cantor’s excellent 2016 documentary Dancer, recently given an airing as part of the Bertha DocHouse’s ‘best of 2017’ showing at Curzon Bloomsbury. But the documentary is still well worth watching for so many reasons – and not just to marvel at the marvellously contoured Polunin leap magnificently into the stratosphere like a salmon and then land on his feet with perfect balance. All grace and poise, mixed in with ample doses of sensuality and sexuality.

At the heart of the documentary is sacrifice – the personal sacrifices Sergei made to get to the top of his profession and those made by his parents Galina and Vladimir and a grandmother.

Sacrifices that resulted in heavy prices being paid – Vladimir leaving the family home and going off to Portugal to find work, the grandmother working in Greece to help fund Polunin’s tutoring, a fractured son mother relationship that never healed until after Polunin’s rise to fame at The Royal Ballet, and ultimately a broken marriage (between Vladimir and the glamorous Galina).

As for Sergei, his relentless pursuit of balletic excellence ultimately left him unloved, angry and emotionally scarred – fault lines that understandably made it impossible for him to deal with fame. The toll on his body is evident as is Polunin’s need to take stimulants (taken by armed forces personnel before they go into battle) to get through his demanding performances.


Cantor has created a gem of a documentary, drawing on extensive video coverage of Polunin’s rise from the poverty of his home city in Kherson, southern Ukraine through to Kiev and then being left to fend for himself at The Royal Ballet School from age 13 (without a word of English in his vocabulary).

It also shows how Polunin initially dealt with his dramatic exit from The Royal Ballet, ending up on a Russian talent show (and winning it) and then being taken under the wing of former Russian ballet star Igor Zelensky. One moment happy, the next depressed. One standout moment is when Polunin allows his mother, father and grandmother to watch him perform – and then come back stage afterwards. Not far behind is when he goes back to Kherson to meet the teacher who helped put him on the path to balletic greatness.

But probably the highlight of the documentary is Polunin performing to ‘Take Me to Church’ (Hozier) inside a house in Hawaii. It is breath-taking as evidenced by the fact that a Youtube video of the performance in 2015 (directed by David LaChapelle) has already attracted 22 million views. I urge you to view it (click here) and marvel at the gracefulness (and pain) of Sergei Polunin.

Dancer is well worth hunting down. It is a superb documentary which confirms that fame is often hard-earned and seldom comes without great sacrifice. A worthy member of Bertha DocHouse’s ‘best of 2017’.

Director: Steve Cantor
Watch the Trailer

Leave a Reply