At the age of 19, Sergei Polunin became the youngest dancer promoted to principal at London’s Royal Ballet. For two years he played virtually every leading male role in the repertoire. Suddenly he walked away without a word, decimating his brilliant career. When dance lover and fashion photographer David LaChapelle approached Sergei about making the video “Take Me to Church,” Polunin agreed, believing it would be his swan song. But the video went viral, inspiring millions of dancers around the world…and Polunin as well.
In Dancer, director Steven Cantor proffers an intimate, empathetic portrait of a young man whose prodigious talent encouraged his family to sacrifice too much; whose extraordinary work ethic erased any possibility of being a child; whose artistic vision may well yet refashion the world of dance. •Availability: Now showing in CA and NYC, IFC Center and Lincoln Center, opening nationwide September 23 (click here for a theater near you) and On Demand. •Thanks to Mary Ann Hult and Katherine Matthews, Obscured Pictures, for arranging this interview.•
Interview with director Steven Cantor:
DT: The final dance sequence was the perfect way to close the film. Did you start out knowing this was how you were going to end, or did it come to you as you worked on the film?
SC: We knew we wanted to have some really amazing set pieces in the film. This was a natural way to end and have an end credit sequence. That last dance represented a rebirth for Sergei. Before “Take Me to Church,” he was in a dark place; he was retiring, and then he had this rebirth because the reaction to “Take Me to Church” was so amazing. Sergei had been working on that final piece with Russell Maliphant, and they had just performed it at Sadler’s Wells, so it was a natural way to finish.
DT: It moved me simply because the thought of Sergei not dancing again was devastating.
DT: The home footage of Sergei and his family is really seminal to Dancer, but I read you didn’t get it until very late in the game. How did getting it change the film?
SC: The film evolved very naturally over the course of four years. We didn’t start off with any agenda. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We knew that we had a kid who was labeled by the media as the “bad boy of ballet,” and we knew that his private, personal self was a very different, gentle, soft-spoken, reserved, nurturing nice guy. We knew there was a conflict and he was going to have to resolve that somehow, so we knew we’d follow something interesting, but we had no idea what form it was going to take.
We had no idea about the backstory, we had no idea that his mother, growing up in poverty in southern Ukraine with very few possessions, had a video camera and was a pretty good shooter, or that his friends at the Royal Ballet kept shooting with their cameras and their phones, or that Sergei himself was a pretty good shooter and captured some amazing personal moments.
That stuff wasn’t all collected in one big box. We had a serious research effort. Sometimes the footage sort of trickled in; Jade [Sergei’s best friend] would call in and say, “I’ve got some more footage I’m sending to you,” and my producing partner Julia Loomis would look at it and say, “Oh my God, Sergei is running naked through the street and lying down in the snow.” The editing process took nine months. We were constantly juggling things around figuring out what the story would be.
DT: But the film is incredibly organic, even tight, almost like a well-written screenplay. How did you do that?
SC: For any film you try and distill it down to What is the core story, the core psychological background of everything? As Sergei’s story and backstory unfolded to us, it was very clear what his psychological motivations were and what pickups were along his developmental path. Then we followed his present-day storyline, which was rocky, and we didn’t quite know where it was going to go. Then “Take Me to Church” crystallized everything because it was supposed to be his retirement, and the response to the video was so incredible that it allowed us to have him at his low point and then also to have a kind of rebirth catharsis at the end.
DT: How well did you get to know Sergei and his family, and what was the process of getting to know each other?
SC: I’m a little reserved actually, which is probably a strange quality for a documentary filmmaker to have, and Sergei’s very reserved, so it was a slow process of my building trust in him and wanting to devote the time that it takes to really make a proper documentary. For him, to open up was therapeutic on some level—to have to dig into questions in his past. In the film he says he doesn’t like to have memories and doesn’t want to deal with the past, so to open up those wounds again was difficult for him. It took some time during conversations on camera, sometimes they’d be recorded, the way you’re recording this one, sometimes he and I would just go out for a burger and get to know each other. He was overseas, I was in New York, so it was a slow process of building trust.
DT: Did he want to make the film?
SC: When we met him he was 23, and he thought, A documentary about my life, that sounds cool. He didn’t know what it was going to be. None of us knew. We thought maybe it was going to be a dance piece. I think it sounded like a good idea to him at the beginning, but four years into it he thought, My God, is this ever going to end?
DT: You’ve made documentaries about many famous people, like Willie Nelson or Sally Mann, but never about a dancer. Did the dance element throw you at all?
SC: Actually the dance element inspired me, because my fiancée used to be a dancer, and my daughter, who was nine when we started the film, is a very serious, dedicated ballerina who’s devoted her whole childhood to ballet, similar to what Sergei did. She’s 13 now, and she’s at the School of American Ballet. When she was young I thought, I’ll make some animated thing to impress her and her friends. That never happened, so now this is a chance to be a cool dad—she walks out of her ballet school at Lincoln Center, and there’s our poster. Sergei was actually the first guy to ever lift her besides me. The home screen of my phone is Sergei lifting my daughter. Anyway, I have a lot of practice filming dance because she’s nonstop pirouetting around the living room, and I’ve been filming her for years.
DT: Do you think the line between documentary and feature film is getting thinner?
SC: A lot of documentary filmmakers are working in reality television right now, and the reality television world is so organized and scripted. The executives want to know before you shoot exactly where you’re going to be shooting, and they want the scripts to be laid out. I think there’s probably a little of that mentality of trying to discuss and think about what you’re going to be shooting, talking to your subjects about what the scenes are going to be a little more than what it used to be, especially in the cinema verite world. It used to be you are just a fly on the wall, don’t get involved. Certainly that wasn’t our experience with this film. I got to know Sergei very well, and at times I was a director, at times I was a friend, at times a coach, really talking about everything.
DT: I believe that this is a film that will make a difference. Do you?
SC: I hope that this film is about more than just a dancer. It’s about a lot of things, about family, and struggle…and sacrifice. Sergei’s parents and extended family made an enormous sacrifice of their relationships to one another, their relationships to him. Sending your kid at age thirteen to be raised by the Royal Ballet while you go back to Kiev is unbelievable. And on Sergei’s part, the sacrifice to basically give up his childhood in order to become a great dancer. It’s incredible. Think about all the things you’re doing as a kid, all the things you’re exploring, and he just cuts it all off, ballet starting at age five. In the end, I think it raises the question, Is it worth it? Is Sergei happier at 26—still extraordinarily young—but is he happier at 26 being at the top of the ballet world, or would he have been happier working in the shipping industry in Ukraine and having his parents stay together, having a tight family unit? If you ask his mother, there’s no question she would do it all over again. For Sergei, I think it’s a little thornier. I hope the film connects on that level.
Interview with dancer Sergei Polunin:
DT: There are many wrong reasons to dance. What are the right reasons for you?
SP: Through my journey, I realized that for me, to dance is to inspire. To inspire kids, to move dance forward, and to do something with your gift to bring brightness into the world.
DT: Those are all reasons for other people. Is there something in it for you?
SP: That’s a hard question. I mean…I am a dancer. It’s been part of my life since I was three, so that’s who I am. I don’t see a reason to do it; it’s who I am. You’re walking in the street, I’m dancing. It’s like what’s the reason to be a human? It’s the same thing.
DT: You’ve said you admire Natalia Osipova’s ability to make a choreography her own. What does it mean to make a choreography your own?
SP: For example, you’ve been given a set of steps. When the choreographers are alive, the dancers are allowed to improvise and create. As soon as the choreographer dies, the opportunities narrow and the ballet company just gives you a video. For example, if I’m doing Anthony Dowell, they’ll say, “You have to do it like him.” Anthony Dowell doesn’t support that, but the people presenting it don’t want it to get too loose. For a dancer, that becomes very restrictive: “You can’t look right, you have to look left.” It became really boring.
DT: Was that one of the problems you had at the Royal Ballet?
SP: They gave me everything they could possibly give me. They were even giving me more than I needed. What I wasn’t happy with was the system of ballet in general, the infrastructure. When I watched TV, I asked myself, Why are there no dancers on TV? Why are they not on talk shows, why are they not doing advertisements? They’re not less talented than football players or actors or musicians.
At the age of 19, I went to film directors and said, I want to do a movie. They said great, but of course they couldn’t help me; I needed an agent, a manager. It was hard, because I was a foreigner in London without family, without connections. All I knew was how to destroy and hopefully re-create what I wanted. It was a long journey, but through talking to artists like David LaChapelle, who hugely inspired me because he loved dance more than anything, I thought, Maybe I’m missing something. At that point, I really disliked dance, because I hated the system. Nobody was helping anybody. It was dead to me. When I worked with David, I realized he loves dance, and since he’s such an amazing artist, that made me think, Maybe there is something there in dance; maybe I have to come back and change the system.
I thought of building a better system, like the movie industry. I talked to David, and he asked, “Do you have an agent?” When I told him no, he said, “How do you guys get work if you don’t have an agent?” Then I talked to Ralph Fiennes and found out he has huge support; he has managers and agents and a company. Dancers don’t have that, and I realized that’s the key. That’s what we need to create, because that creates the industry.
“Take Me to Church” gave me a new light. I thought it was my last dance, but when I saw kids dancing to it, they inspired me, so I realized we can do something with the system. Before the video came out, film producer Gabrielle Tana and I were knocking on doors, but nobody would listen to us. Then the video comes out, and people start to say, “Hi kids, what are you doing, what’s next?” So we started to build a team. We got an amazing guy who used to be a banker, and he said, “Let me help you build this company.”
DT: Is this Project Polunin?
SP: Yes. It’s going to have a charitable part, and we want to have a foundation that can support dance. We want to create movies and videos, we want to do shows, and we want to have lawyers and managers who will support dancers. I’m hoping every dancer will join so we have a community of dancers who can be heard. We want to connect with the fashion industry, film industry, music industry, so dancers will have a choice.
Let’s say a dancer says, My goal is to do a talk show. The company will start working on that. The idea is building a community of people, because in the ballet world everybody was for themselves. We have to unite. You see the football industry, or any other industry…but who cares about dancers?
DT: Where are you based?
SP: It started in London, but I think it will go international, because it’s important to get everybody talking. We’re talking to people in New York, L.A., Japan, all over Europe. We’re not going to be against the system; we’re going to be integrated. It’s going to be so good for the next generation of dancers. For four years I was on the road searching for support and wasting my dance time. Sometimes I would say to myself, Why am I traveling, why am I not dancing? It took a lot of strength to keep going into nowhere. Til suddenly “Take Me to Church” comes out and people start to listen. It’s amazing what a little video can do.
DT: Let’s get back to Dancer. There was incredible footage of you improvising when you were a boy. How much do you improvise now, how much do you take from other dance systems? In “Take Me to Church,” some of your movements almost felt like tai chi or karate.
SP: I worked on the piece with my best friend, Jade Hale-Christofi. He understood me really well emotionally, so he connected the piece on an emotional level. It’s much easier to see from outside, and I really trusted how Jade sees what I’ve been through. But the dance moves were just my favorite moves ever since I learned them years ago.
There were some Baryshnikov moves—I spent many, many years stopping his videos and examining them. That’s important; it integrates in your body. Baryshnikov is a big inspiration, and I have him in me through analyzing his moves, where he’s looking; you’re building yourself into somebody’s dancing ability. In “Take Me to Church” many of the moves were originally Baryshnikov’s. He was a big inspiration.
DT: Did Jade put them in, or did you?
SP: I did. I think that a smart choreographer lets a dancer be comfortable with whatever they’re doing. A choreographer has to connect the pieces; he has to be a good director. It’s not about creating the moves; it’s about connecting the piece. Of course, I’m a dancer, I know what I like to dance. I know what my moves are, and Jade was really smart the way he connected them.
DT: Your height is spectacular, but it’s your upper body that I find so breathtaking. Are you conscious of your line when your dance: are you conscious of your form?
SP: No. It’s more natural.
DT: You just do it.
SP: I just do it.
DT: Was it always that way, or did you have to work on your line?
SP: Everybody says, “Oh, it’s natural,” but that’s crazy. I went to dance school at age three, then I did gymnastics for years, where I learned space awareness. Then I went to ballet school. From the age of nine, after school I would go to a theater coach, and every day we would work on posture, on feeling, for hours and hours. It was seven years of work, every day.
When I went to ballet school I worked triple, because I didn’t do academics; I did double dance classes and then I stayed after school every day and watched videos. That’s what nobody understands—these school years. The reason why I am relaxed and can enjoy it now is the hours I put in in school. It would be eight hours a day from the time I was four. So that ability doesn’t just come from being gifted, or because I was born like that. No, it was a huge amount of work, a huge amount of hours. Now I can learn a ballet in a day. People get angry that I don’t do classes, because my body doesn’t need it.
DT: You have it.
SP: I have it, yes, because whoever didn’t work hard in school, whoever wasted time then has to catch up now. I was fortunate not to have that problem. A friend of mine says, “Who works the hardest is the best.” That’s true. Who puts the most hours in, gets it.
You have to tell that to kids. That’s what’s important—kids have to understand that if they work now, it’s going to be easier later so that you You’re just going to play, you can search for other things, not just concentrate. When I got to the Royal Ballet, I never practiced my technique again. I was concentrating on developing my roles, so I had time to concentrate on acting ability rather than thinking, Am I going to do a pirouette here, or am I going to fall? I didn’t have to think about it any more, so I could develop my acting skill on stage.
DT: So now that you’ve developed your technique and your acting skills, what are you working on now?
SP: I actually started working on my voice. On speaking, working with core. I’ve integrated it into my ballet class, so in one hour I accomplish barre, as well as a-e-i-a. That’s new to me. Dance is very quiet, and very internal…dancers never speak out, so I just thought I would use the same approach as I used for my dance class, but using different muscles, developing my voice rather than my body language. It’s constant growing into some direction rather than stopping, which is very interesting and very exciting.
DT: That’s also like Baryshnikov.
SP: I really look up to him.
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