The Dancer review: the mysterious tale of the dancer from Hozier’s Take Me to Church

Steven Cantor’s winning documentary tells the amazing story of Sergei Polunin’s shock retirement and return to ballet

Dancer
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Director: Steven Cantor
Cert: PG
Genre: Documentary
Starring: Sergei Polunin
Running Time: 1 hr 25 mins

We don’t need to wrap ourselves in the flag to find a domestic connection to ballet dancer Sergei Polunin. But that option is available.

Now 27, the Ukrainian is among the most gifted talents of his generation. After graduating from the Kiev choreographic institute, then just 13, he joined the Royal Ballet School where he excelled. In 2010, he became that institution's youngest-ever principal dancer. The reviews were ecstatic. Future performances were sold out years in advance. He was variously compared to Rudolf Nureyev and an angel. "He is one of the most convincing Des Grieux I've seen," the Guardian said of his turn in a 2011 production of Manon. "Technically his performance has many fine things, the long, unfolding adagio of his first solo, the audacity and intensity of his partnering."

The word ‘physicality’ is hardly worth using in reviews of ballet, but it has been slung quite early and often at Polunin. And sure enough, without bearing any noticeable resemblance to Dwayne Johnson or Terry Crews, Polunin’s physicality is a marvel. Watching Steven Cantor’s winning documentary, even the most seasoned ballet fan will likely sit up and wonder: how the hell did he do that?

Then something odd happened. In 2012, he walked away from company complaining that “the artist in me is dying”. There were rumours, of course. Was ballet’s tattooed, hard-partying bad boy addicted to cocaine? Was he throwing an expensive, career-ruining strop? Or did he simply need time away from a vocation that had robbed him of his childhood and his family life?

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There is material enough there for a documentary. But what really put Polunin in the public eye was his performance in David LaChapelle's video for Hozier's unavoidable Take Me to Church in 2014. Now he was something more than famous. He was properly viral. It's a little unlucky that Dancer ends just before Polunin teamed up with Natalia Osipova to become ballet's most glamorous superstar couple, but filmmaker Cantor has enough access to the titular hoofer's parents, grandmother and Royal Academy colleagues to unravel his mystery of his 'retirement' and to capture the precise moment when he falls back in love with dancing.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic