Ukraine-born ballet superstar Sergei Polunin loves to dance but doesn’t always know why he’s dancing. That internal conflict is at the heart of Steven Cantor’s sensitive, luxuriantly filmed documentary about the princely, magnetic Polunin, “Dancer,” a title that in the 26-year-old artist’s eyes could variously be a badge of honor or a provocation.
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A jubilant, talented child born in poverty-stricken Kherson, Polunin’s obvious talent earned him a place at London’s Royal Ballet School for training. In record time he was named a principal at the Royal Ballet: at 19, making him the youngest ever. But separated from his family — who sacrificed everything for him to the extent that the parents’ marriage suffered — Polunin’s ambition soured and veered toward cynical burnout, which led to behavior that earned him a reputation as ballet’s bad boy.
And yet Cantor’s movie, which includes captured backstage footage and interviews with his mother, father, and supportive friends, is no sensationalistic brushstroke (despite the use of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” at the beginning). From memorable, early home videos depicting a graceful boy and physically commanding teenage prodigy to the fiercely emotional, tattooed star of the David LaChapelle-directed “Take Me to Church” video that became a viral sensation last year and helped reignite Polunin’s desires, “Dancer” becomes a gentle inquiry into how a gifted performer disrupts his life in order to test his passion.
In English, Russian and Ukrainian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica