David LaChapelle and Sergei Polunin’s collaboration shines in ‘Dancer’

Their viral music video features in a new documentary on how the “bad boy of ballet” rebuilt his love of dance.

For Dancer, director David LaChapelle filmed Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin in a spirited routine set to the soundtrack of Hozier’s Grammy-nominated single ‘Take Me To Church’. The heavily tattooed 26-year-old former British Royal Ballet dancer performs choreography by Jade Hale-Christofi and the artistry of the repertoire combined with the minimalist way in which it is filmed is both raw and vulnerable.

The sautés, pirouettes, whirls, and arches are provocative and powerful, and the physicality struck a cord when the four-minute sequence was released online last year. The video is highlighted in a new documentary by Steven Cantor and the work has grown even more hauntingly beautiful now that audiences can experience the deep personal history that drove him to that performance; the emotion was incredibly real Polunin said. “I cried for hours” during filming, he told The New York Times.

At 19 years old, Polunin had become the Royal Ballet’s youngest ever principal dancer. But, at the height of his success, he walked away from it all with no warning. In Dancer, Polunin tells the story of the profound impact that ‘Take Me To Church’ had on his return to dance. The feature-length film delves deeper into his life and many of his awe-inspiring performances, including LaChapelle’s music video, and celebrates his raw talent and wild ambition, as well as the struggles he has encountered personally and professionally.

The film was initially focused on Polunin’s early success and fast burnout, and in an effort to draw him out of the ballet box, he was introduced to LaChapelle to work on a segment. “I thought, fine, this will be my last dance, my goodbye to ballet,” he recalled. As fate would have it, LaChapelle suggested Hozier’s ‘Take Me to Church’ as the soundtrack and filmed the iconoclastic virtuoso in his sun-drenched studio in Hawaii. The video went viral and brought the “bad boy of ballet” back into the limelight. Sergei Polunin became a YouTube star, found a new audience, and what was meant to be his final performance became so much more. That story then became the crux of Dancer. “I would lie if I say I don’t love dancing,” he said when reflecting on his decision to return to the ballet world.

“We need [LaChapelle] in the ballet world,” Polunin told the Huffington Post. “We need something pop ― we need something that is now. And David is the best to shake things, to hype it up. For people to talk about us. I see him as a visionary for the future of ballet.”

Dancer opens in Los Angeles theaters on September 9 and then in New York and on demand on September 16. Watch the film’s trailer below and read more about it in The New York Times.