New York Times September 15, 2016

In some ways, the star of Steven Cantor’s documentary “Dancer” is not Sergei Polunin, the volatile former Royal Ballet principal, but the music video he starred in. Shot by David LaChapelle, the video shows Mr. Polunin, bare-chested and tattooed, sliding to the floor, arching his back like a cat and leaping into the air to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” It’s pure angst.

There’s more of that in this ponderous documentary, in which Mr. LaChapelle’s video is featured, as well as background music like Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” A prodigious talent from Ukraine with a determined stage mother, Mr. Polunin is a controversial figure in the ballet world. After he was named a principal at the Royal Ballet at 19, he quit just two years later.

In “Dancer,” Mr. Polunin’s suffering may be on display, but too little of his artistry. Where would he be without “Take Me to Church”? It’s questionable whether “Dancer,” flimsy as it is, would have even been made.

At its core, “Dancer” focuses on Mr. Polunin’s relationship with his family and how his parents’ divorce — while he was a student at the Royal Ballet School — reverberates throughout his career. For his mother, especially, ballet was Mr. Polunin’s escape route from a limited future in Ukraine; for him, it was, partly, a way to make his parents happy. His early years, revealed through impressive archival footage, show a vivid boy with spirit and drive.

His teenage period was tougher. After his parents announced their separation, he recalled: “I was like, I’m never going to be upset again, and I will never suffer and I will never miss anybody and I don’t want any memories about anything. That was the last time I cried for years.”

At the Royal, Mr. Polunin, fueled by drugs and alcohol, earned one of ballet’s most clichéd labels: bad boy. But as he is seen trying to rebuild his career in Russia, with the help of the ballet director Igor Zelensky, he seems to lose some of his bravado. When Mr. LaChapelle’s video goes viral, with nearly 16 million views on YouTube — it was meant to be his final performance — Mr. Polunin finds a new audience and peace: “I would lie if I say I don’t love dancing.”

And he is still at it. This November, he will appear in a program with his girlfriend, the ballerina Natalia Osipova, at City Center. Has Mr. Polunin’s flame burned out? Perhaps the only way to know is to see him in the flesh.

“Dancer” is not rated. In English, Russian and Ukrainian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes.

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