No dancer has had the effect on me that Sergei Polunin has. I’d come to Nureyev when he was too old and I too young. He was very beautiful still but already stodgy in movement. It’s his celebrity, his history, we applauded then rather than his performance. Even delving into old BBC films memorialising his legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn disappointed: the films themselves are so static that they get in the way of fully appreciating him in his prime, though even in these awful stodges, where no thought has been given as to how to best present one form via another, his genius and techne shine through (though if these films made me a fan of anyone, it’s Fonteyn). However, Nureyev’s dancing is best appreciated elsewhere, and from way before my time, as in this old Soviet footage:
or in this American TV Special:
I adored Baryshnikov. Like so many others, I got to know him first through The Turning Point (Herbert Ross, 1977) and then through the all too few films he graced (White Nights, Dancers). It was also a thrill to see him in those magnificent specials he did for American television in the 80s, first with Liza Minnelli in Baryshnikov on Broadway (1980) and later Baryshnikov Dances Sinatra (1984). The thrill was fleeting in those pre-VHS days but it has lasted in memory, memories that can now be tested via the re-releases of those works on DVD.
Baryshnikov was the light to Nureyev’s feral broodyness, first a horny pixie, all grace and beauty in movement, one who seemed to radiate earthy joy in its most ethereal aspect, then later, whilst still technically virtuosic, becoming baser, rawer, a hint of cruelty coming out in the more macho dimensions of the dances. He was also quick to branch out into more diverse forms of dance, eager to absorb all of its idioms, from Twyla Tharpe to Jerome Robbins, from his work in the American Ballet Theatre to his later experiments with modern dance in his own White Oak Dance Company with Mark Morris.
The Rudolf Nureyev foundation was later to fund Polunin’s schooling at the Royal Ballet. And Julie Kavanagh has called Polunin ‘the purest virtuoso’ since Baryshnikov. Polunin demands to be compared with, not only the best, but the legendary ones of each generation. I first saw him by accident in a live transmission of The Royal Opera House’s Sleeping Beauty and was simply dazzled, first by his charisma, then by the way he seemed to attack each move fearlessly but end with enormous control whilst putting a final flourish on the movement. I haven’t seen anyone quite like him.
As Julie Kavanah writes, this time for 1843:
‘A dancer like Polunin comes along once every two or three decades; at 13 his potential was so evident that his teacher would pull up a chair and study him during class. “He’d say, ‘Sergei, show them how to do a rond de jambe.’” To see him demonstrate a movement is to see a blueprint of perfection. Watching him back then at the junior school, where my son was a pupil, I was reminded of home footage I had come across while researching my biography of Nureyev. It was of the teenage Baryshnikov, who was also a living lexicon of classical ballet, articulating academic steps in ways which could hardly if ever be improved. Polunin has it in him to be the heir of both stars, adding Nureyev’s feral impulse to Baryshnikov’s phenomenal virtuosity and clarity, while introducing a youthful masculinity of his own.
In a superb piece for The New York Times, ‘Roger Federer as Religious Experience’ the late, great, David Foster Wallace writes of athletes: ‘Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.’ It’s an idea also developed in ‘How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart’ in Consider the Lobster, where he writes of top flight athletes being beautiful and inspiring:
‘There is about world-class athletes carving out exemptions from physical laws a transcendent beauty that makes manifest God in man….Great athletes are profundity in motion. They enable abstractions like power and grace and control to become not only incarnate but televisable. To be a top athlete, performing, is to be what that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves’.
When we add beauty as goal to all that Foster Wallace describes, this sense of carving exemptions from physical laws, of profundity in motion, becomes intensified. ‘So we want to know them,’ adds Foster Wallace:
‘these gifted, driven physical achievers. We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough. We want to get intimate with all that profundity. We want inside them; we want the Story. We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instincts, liniment and pain. We want to know how they did it (pp. 142-143)
Dancer helps us get to know Polunin, whilst reminding us, through thrilling home and video footage, of why we want to get to know him in the first place. We begin with Polunin’s story. Born in Kherson in Souther Ukraine to working class parents, he first studied at the school of gymnastics, where he dreamed of winning a gold medal. But he also did a little bit of dancing in the afternoons and his mother thought he would have a better life exploring that route. So the whole family mobilised to make that dream come true: the father went to work to Portugal as a builder, the grandmother as carer for the elderly in Greece. Both sending home all they earned to pay for the rent and the school fees so he could study ballet in Kiev. But who’s dream was this? The child’s? The mother’s? The family’s? Beware of parents who constantly tell their children they sacrificed all for their future — a shift in perspective turns a sacrifice into an investment; the gilded future of their children into their own.
When Polunin was eleven, he auditioned at the Royal Ballet School, was accepted and quickly impressed. In 2007 he was named Young British Dancer of the year. He was the youngest dancer to be made a principal in the whole history of the Royal Ballet. They gave him practically every lead dance to play, six major new roles in 2011 alone, too many, like exploiting a young footballer’s virtuosity to the point where he risks potential injury and a curtailment of his career. Then in 2012, after his parents divorced and after breaking up with his girlfriend and getting into an argument in rehearsal with his his co-star, Romanian ballerina Alina Cojocaru, he left the Royal ballet for good. It was a scandal that made the front pages.
Soon, the tabloids were full of stories on the ‘bad boy of ballet,’ the significance of part-owning a tattoo-parlour in North London, and proof of those tweets about his drug-taking and clubbing. In the UK the ballet establishment wrung its hands, a talent wasted they thought. What the film shows us is more personal. He’d been over-worked and burned out. And what was the point of continuing? In his eyes, he’d done it all for his family who’d sacrificed so much for him. It’s not something he wanted for himself. And if his family had fallen apart in the process of collectively making possible that which was not his dream…well what was the point of it all?
The aftermath was not as well-covered by the press. I eagerly bought tickets for a ballet based on Midnight Express at the London Coliseum. Polunin cancelled but I soldiered on and fully understand why he pulled out. It was a complete disaster: sensationalist, crude, bombastic, salacious. He might have made it watchable. But not without embarrassment. What I had not noticed, partly because I did not then know of him, was that the strong, tall man, with his hand on the shoulder of the vulnerable Polunin in the poster (see image above) was Igor Zelenksy.
In Dancer, Polunin’s mother, Galina, describes him as the father Polunin always needed (and we also see how this view hurts Polunin’s handsome, gentle and self-sacrificing real father, Vladimir). Polunin followed Zelenksy to the Stanislavsky ballet. We see footage of him dancing there, and them dancing together in Spartacus. Dancer shows us how Polunin had to rebuild his career in Russia. He took part in a national ballet tv show, something comparable to The Voice or Britain’s Got Talent but with ballet dancing rather than singing as its focus. This way, Polunin once more became not only the leading dancer of his generation but once more a national celebrity, an international one. And once more the film shows us him running away to give it all up. This time to collaborate with former Royal Ballet classmate, Jade-Hali Cristofi in choreographing a ballet set to Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’, rather hackneyed both in sound and choreography but beautifully directed and danced, and which up to his point has racked up 19,331,185 views on you-tube. Extraordinary.
It’s clear from the film that this was at one point thought to be the ending of the film. It’s all structured to lead to this. But then, once, more Polunin returns to ballet, thankfully for us and for the film.
Dancer is fascinating in at least two ways; one, because through all the fantastic early footage it demonstrates the genius — there’s no other word for it — of its subject; two, because it also shows us all the work, dedication and sacrifice needed to develop that talent into genius. In the process of transforming raw talent into these otherworldly beings Foster Wallace describes, with that grace, power and control that ‘carve out exemptions from physical laws’, the single-minded focus extracts a price, social and psychological. Here the irony is that all the family sacrificed, then the incredible talent actually realised. But it wasn’t Polunin’s own desire. And he struck struck out angrily — at least for a while — and shunned the family who sacrificed so much to make it possible. What was gained was a social good its subject and focus had no particular stake in, i.e. our enjoyment of his talent. He himself wanted first his family; then when he realised he couldn’t get that, maybe a car. Then when the realisation hit that’s that not what he’d be getting either. Well, why bother? There’s a Greek tragedy in this film, one that could have been better drawn out.
Richard Dyer, in a lovely piece wittily entitled ‘Classical ballet: a bit of uplift,’ originally written for Marxism Today, writes‘, ‘Classical ballet celebrates the potential harmony of the human body, the utopian ideal of collective endeavour, the possibility of the interchange between the sexes of human qualities we now label masculine or feminine. Something of this is what has recommended ballet to the communisms of the ballet of the USSR, Cuba and China. Beneath the aristocratic tat of the settings and the charming but dispensable never-never of the stories, there is an implicitly socialist vision. (p. 42) Dyer, may be right. It’s part of the argument that’s been used about the Busby Berkeley musicals vs the Astaire and Rogers ones. You can be Ruby Keeler, clod-hop along as part of a group, and still create wonders if you work together. But ah, only Astaire and Rogers can be as exceptional as they are.
Dyer continues, ‘At one level, its yearning for the transcendent grace of the individual human body in the abstract is a refusal of the actual limitations of the human body in reality. But at another level, its dream of being at one with one’s body and of being the harmony (united in and through differences) with other bodies is the feeling form of socialism. And the fact that you have to train and work for this is what makes it most powerful of all. Classical ballet does not say harmony is natural to human beings, but rather we can learn to achieve it. Likewise, socialism does not emanate from us naturally, it is the harmony we can learn to create together. (p.44)
Those two quotes of Dyer’s are so fascinating because we can see how they are so regarding the potential of the human body, the sexes, etc. But also how it’s not so. Here we see footage of Polunin at thirteen, dancing with a skill and ease that leaves all his colleagues in the dust, and enjoying it. He knows he’s exceptional. That he’ll be the star, and they will be the collectivised chorus who’s primary goal is to make him shine. Polunin — not to speak of all the sexual intrigues, competitiveness, nasty plotting and criminal acts of violence that recently occurred at the Bolshoi — indicates that if classical ballet has a feeling form evoking socialism, it’s one with a place for a Stalinist variant, with competition, exceptionalism, and hierarchy; with a natural selection harnessed before children are even given the choice and before the age where consent is in any way be meaningful, and then ruthlessly honed to the point where they are either exceptional enough to thrive, mediocre enough for the corps de ballet, or ruthlessly expunged from the stage altogether. Caught between one of the stage mothers of all time, a gentle and giving father, and evidence of natural ability, Dancer demonstrates the what, why and how of Polunin, marvellously.