'Sergei was so guarded, one day he turned up with spiky blond hair to sabotage continuity'
Shilpa Ganatra talks to documentary-maker Steve Cantor about gaining the trust of ballet's 'bad boy' Sergei Polunin and how a Hozier track inspired the film's centrepiece
Spend any time contemplating it, and the remarkable story of Ukrainian ballet star Sergei Polunin seems primed to be the subject of a documentary. How could we not be intrigued by the story of a prodigious talent sent to the National Ballet School in London without a word of English, rising to uncharted heights, only to rebel at the top of his game before his final dance changes his outlook completely?
This is the premise of Dancer, a compelling, layered documentary with so much drama it feels like a constructed work of fiction, until Polunin's candid interviews remind us that there is a fragile person at its heart.
"From the very beginning, I knew it was a film about a young man and family who scarified an enormous amount to get him to the top of the ballet world. I have unbelievable respect for anyone who has to go through that for their craft," says Steve Cantor, the American director charged with exploring the heart behind the headlines.
The Emmy-winner's previous documentary subjects have ranged from Amish culture in Devil's Playground to The Pixies in loudQUIETloud, but Sergei proved a unique subject, partly because of his extraordinary skill - aged 19, he was the youngest principal at London's Royal Ballet - and partly because of the chasm between his finessed on-stage image and his rock'n'roll lifestyle off it.
With an unfussy approach, Polunin's rises and falls are pieced together with archive footage, interviews with friends, family and the dancer himself, compiled over the four years it took to create.
"It was a very slow process of earning his trust - Sergei was definitely antagonist towards us at times," says Cantor.
"He was so guarded that he turned up to one interview piece with spiky blond hair in order to sabotage continuity. So sometimes we would film, sometimes we would just record audio, sometimes we wouldn't even have any audio on at all; we would just talk.
"The purpose of taking our time was partially getting to trust each other, but also to unravel the psychology behind what had happened in his life. In the film it seems clear, but it wasn't as we went through it."
Primarily, he's referring to Sergei's complex relationship with his family.
In order to pay for his ballet studies, his father and grandmother emigrated from the Ukraine. To Sergei, the separation of his family left an indelible mark, rendering him fatherless and under the watchful eye of an assertive mother, with the added pressure of needing to come good on his family's sacrifices.
"I think he didn't really love ballet growing up, I think it was a job for him at a very young age," notes Steve. "He had an extra motivation that if he got to the top of the ballet world, he'd be able to make everything okay in his life because he could bring his family back together, and he would have money. But as events evolved, as his parents divorced and he knew that dream wouldn't come true, he had no motivation for dancing. I think that's where the anger was coming from."
You may have heard about this time in his life. His cocaine addiction, missed performances and partying made headlines in the UK press and earned him the tidy moniker of "the bad boy of ballet", not least when he dramatically resigned from the Royal Ballet School just two years after accepting its top job.
Yet this controversial period, which we assumed would be the centrepiece of the film, isn't explored for the sake of more headlines.
"He didn't really linger on it," Steve explains. "He was 22 or 23 at the time, he was trying to figure out the next steps of his life and just wanted to get on with it."
Eventually, the decision was to leave ballet completely, which is where this film did find its centrepiece. As part of Dancer, Steve and producer Gabrielle Tana commissioned acclaimed director David LaChapelle to film his farewell dance, set to a then-little known song entitled 'Take Me to Church' by Wicklow singer-songwriter Hozier.
"At the time, he was really in a dark place. We were in LA and he was devoting himself to acting and was done with ballet, and David found the song before it had been heard by the world," says Steve.
"David and Sergei concocted the idea that it would be his farewell to ballet, after which he would retire. So we thought the film was going to have a dark ending for a long time. And then David was a little naughty and put it on the internet."
You may have watched the video. Filmed in a white-washed, sun-drenched room in Hawaii, it's Polunin at his best. He transcends the form of ballet to give an emotionally charged performance which lays bare the end result of his and his family's sacrifice and dedication, while using it as a weapon to convey the anguish it's caused.
Resonating beyond the usual confines of the ballet world, especially appealing to a younger generation engrossed by the tousled-haired, near-naked man covered in tattoos, it became a viral sensation, racking up 19 million views to date.
"Initially, we weren't very happy as it was commissioned to end the film," says Steve. "So we were like, 'David, there's 10,000 views, take that down'. Then, 'there's 100,000 views, please stop it' ("Actually I never told him to take it down," producer Gabrielle, also present, corrects).
"But it turned out to be helpful for the film and for Sergei. It made him more of a high-profile, recognisable face, and created a third act for him because it reinvigorated him to keep dancing."
Which brings us to Sergei's current state of play. Project Polunin is a series of shows in London intended "to create new dance and ballet works through the collaboration of dancers with contemporary artists, musicians and choreographers for both stage and film".
This includes David LaChapelle and Sergei's on-off girlfriend Natalia Osipova, the female principal with the Royal Ballet. There is hope that it will become a touring show, with Ireland a potential destination.
The former dancer is also eking out a fashion, modelling and film career: he'll soon be seen in Red Sparrow,alongside Jennifer Lawrence and Belfast's Ciaran Hands, and has a part in Murder on the Orient Express, alongside Dame Judi Dench, Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz.
Sergei is now 27, the fabled aged when troubled artists implode, but his story seems set to continue past the film and in a new direction.
Dancer is out now