I met with Steven Cantor, director of the film “Dancer“, nominated “Best Documentary” for the British Independent Film Awards 2016 at the Filmmakers Afternoon Tea hosted by BFI during the 60th BFI London Film Festival. BFI offers many amazing opportunities not only to filmmakers but also to journalists, selecting outstanding films and offering British press a unique chance to meet the most talented international directors at one place.
Steven Cantor is no exception. He is a talented American film/television director and film/television producer based in New York. Steven’s works have been nominated for Emmy Awards and an Academy Award, winning Emmy for the film Willie Nelson: Still is Still Moving and an Academy Award for his first film Blood Ties. The most notable works include the films Tent City, USA, Unraveled, No One Dies in Lily Dale, Reporter, I Am an Animal, What Remains, loudQUIETloud: A Film about Pixies, American Masters: Willie Nelson, Devil’s Playground, and Blood Ties.
This year Steven presents his new film Dancer, a critically acclaimed film telling a true life story of a world famous Ukranian-born ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, a controversial and notorious ballet world figure. It is a massive work that took Steven almost 5 years, starting in 2012 right when Sergei left the Royal Ballet and was labeled “a bad boy of world’s ballet”. It took a while for the documentary team to win Sergei’s trust and to make this movie, showing a real human story with many different layers of Polunin’s troubled career path.
Sergei Polunin took the ballet world by storm and became the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal in 2010. He joined the British Ballet School at the age of 13 in 2003, became the first soloist in 2009 and then the youngest ever principal in 2010, but at the age of 25 in 2012, Polunin announced his resignation from the company. He felt very unhappy saying that “the artist in me was dying.” Sergei was then invited to Russia by a famous artistic director and ballet dancer Igor Zelensky, and became principal at the Stanislavsky Music Theatre and Novosibirsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre. In April 2013 it was reported that Sergei walked out on the Schaufuss Ballet’s performance of the ‘Midnight Express’ before the opening night, proving his rebellious character and his reputation of a “bad boy of ballet”.
Sergei Polunin is truly one of the greatest dancers of our time and a breathtaking ballet talent. Blessed with astonishing power and poise, he received numerous awards including Youth America Grand Prix and Prix de Lausanne, being named the Youngest British Dancer of the Year in 2007. Polunin won Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards for the Best Male Dancer in 2010, Critics’ Circle National Dance Awards for the Best Classical Male Dancer in 2011, won the competition of Bolshoi Ballet in 2012 and was shortlisted as the best male dancer for the 2014 National Dance awards in the U.K.
Steven Cantor‘s film gives an unprecedented look into the life of a complex young artist who has made ballet go viral. Urban rebel, iconoclast, airborne angel, Sergei is transforming the shape of ballet as we know it. But virtuosity comes with a high price. How can you be free to be yourself when you are ballet’s ‘hottest property’?*
The documentary was partly funded by the BBC and launched in the United States in September 2016 but is not available for general release in the United Kingdom until 6 March 2017, though it has several screenings in London as part of the BFI London Film Festival. Producers are currently in talks to screen the film in Russia and Ukraine.
We met with Steven at the BFI Filmmakers’ Afternoon Tea at the May Fair Hotel in London to speak about his film and friendship with Sergei.
HC: Steven, it’s great to meet you at such an important event here in London, are you excited to present your film at London Film Festival?
SC: Yes, I am very happy to be here and present my new film ‘Dancer’ to the British public. BFI London Film Festival is a great opportunity and I am very happy to be here.
HC: Why did you decide to make a movie about Sergei Polunin?
SC: The producer of the film, Gabi Tana, who is actually based here in London, called me and said: “you should come and meet this guy, he is truly fascinating!” I googled him first and saw this tough Russian guy with tattoos, labeled on many Russian websites as a “bad boy of ballet”. He is an incredible dancer, I really wanted to make a film about him.
HC: Have you seen any of his performances here in London or in New York? Are you a fan?
SC: Oh yeah, he is incredible. Actually, I have a 13 yo daughter who is a very serious ballet dancer. The first guy who has ever lifted her except for me was actually Sergei. He really inspired her to be so serious about ballet.
HC: It must be absolutely incredible to train with Sergei and to be able to ask for his professional advice.
Steven shows me pictures of his daughter training with Sergei and they are astonishingly beautiful, full of passion for dancing.
HC: What was it like making a movie about Sergei? Was it difficult working with him?
Steven closes his eyes for a second, sighs and nods.
SC: It was very complicated, actually. Sergei is not really comfortable in front of a camera. It took us a while to build up the trust and took a while to get him comfortable being filmed. He liked the idea of the film but didn’t want to see any of the material while working on it. Actually, he thought it’s going to be a dance film, not a 4 year follow! But at that time we didn’t know it either…
HC: The film premiered in the USA and now is being screened at the London Film Festival, but are you planning to screen it in Russia and Sergei’s motherland Ukraine?
SC: Definitely. We are going to, but it’s really hard to figure out Russian distribution system, so the producers are currently working on it and are attempting to organize the screenings.
HC: You spent years working on this movie, you admire Sergei’s talent, he is a great inspiration and a teacher to your daughter, I believe you are good friends with Sergei spending lots of time together?
SC: Oh, yes, we are very good friends.