Four years. This is how long it took to release Dancer, the biopic / documentary entirely dedicated to the life and career of Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin. Without a doubt one of the major talents of his generation, Polunin is also known for his out of the box way of thinking. Born in Cherson in 1989; aged 19 he became the youngest ever principal of the Royal Ballet. However, in 2012 he decided to leave what he believed to be a too strict institution for his unique skills and decided to go freelancing, in order to have the opportunity to perform in major international theatres, starting from the Stanislavsky in Moscow directed by one of his mentors: Igor Zelensky.
In 2015, he gained planetary attention appearing in the music video for Take me to church by Hozier, directed by David LaChapelle and choreographed by Jade Hale-Christofi. A video that definitely led the way for Dancer, which will open in American theatres from 9th and 16th September and will be released worldwide at the beginning of 2017. We have had the pleasure of discussing the film in further detail with the director Steven Cantor, in order to discover more details about such a unique project.
Dancer took a while to be filmed and completed. Would you be so kind as to let us know what your goals for it were, as a director, and more details about the original idea that led to its realization?
When the producer, Gaby Tana, first introduced me to Sergei, I was struck by how much his outsized, "bad-boy" reputation belied the kind, slightly shy and supremely talented young man I saw before me. He was at an interesting crossroads in life and it was clear that his upcoming journey would be winding and interesting and would allow a glimpse inside the rigid ballet lifestyle, as well as his enigmatic mind. So, I wanted to be along for that ride and thankfully Gaby and Sergei allowed me to do just that.
Was it the first time you collaborated so closely with a dancer?
It so happens that my fiancée, Jocelyn Steiber, was a serious dancer growing up and my daughter, Clara, now 13, is currently at The School of American Ballet and quite a dedicated little dancer herself. So I have certainly collaborated with them quite a bit - filmed each of them for years. But on a professional level, this is the deepest into dance world I have ever gone.
What challenges did you experience in directing Sergei Polunin?
Sergei was open and generous and engaged and quite thoughtful throughout the making of the film, which spanned almost four years. He is not the world's greatest communicator in terms of answering his phone or responding to e-mails. And his constant changes of hair style and colour made for some interesting continuity issues. But other than those minor grievances, he was a real pleasure to work with and I looked forward to our interactions on "set" and now consider him a friend for life.
What aspects of his life and career have you decided to focus on?
We started at the beginning and ended at the end, so we pretty much covered it all. I have often remarked that he did more by the age of 22 than just about anyone I know. He had already grown up in four countries, become the youngest principal dancer in the Royal Ballet history, quit that job, somehow sullied his reputation in the entire Western hemisphere, moved to Moscow, become a star on Russian TV talent shows and decided to retire. By contrast, at the same point, I had a Bachelor's degree from a liberal arts college and was applying for my first job.
How do you think the audiences will respond to the film, seeing the different approaches to ballet in different countries?
I believe we have told a story that is universal. It is one of struggle and sacrifice and dedication, everything that an individual and his family must go through to get him to the top of his field. And in the end the audience - and the family members and the person himself - are left to ponder if it's all worth it.
What criteria did you use to choose the key people who appear in the documentary?
The people in the film are those who knew Sergei best - his parents and grandparents and closest friends. We thought at times about interviewing some outside experts to lend a more objective voice to the film, but in the end we chose to keep it insular and intimate and true to Sergei's specific experience.
Could you tell us some interesting anecdotes which occurred while filming?
There were so many. But one that springs to mind is actually a scene that didn't make the final cut - we were shooting with Sergei and his girlfriend, Natalia Osipova, in St. James Park when they decided to stop by a duck pond. You are not supposed to feed the ducks, but Sergei and Natasha decided to offer up a small piece of bread. One duck took a quick bite, then another swam over to get some, which they reluctantly gave and then before you knew it, they were mobbed by ducks and swans zooming over and quacking away - it was rather beautiful and we all shared quite a laugh.
Do you think you will work with Polunin again the near future?
I certainly hope to. I think we had a great collaboration and I think this film will open up a lot of doors for him that had previously been closed. Maybe we'll make a sequel in a decade or so - let's see where he ends up.