There have been at least half a dozen good ballet documentaries in the last few years, but none with as riveting a subject as Sergei Polunin.

The Ukrainian-born dancer’s star rose spectacularly when he became, in 2010, the youngest principal dancer at the Royal Ballet – earning comparisons to Baryshnikov and Nureyev – only to quit a year and a half later. After a stint dancing in Russia, he announced he was retiring from dance. Then his swan song video – a brilliant, jaw-dropping performance to Hozier’s Take Me To Church, filmed by David LaChapelle – went viral online, spreading his artistry further than he could have imagined.

Director Steven Cantor shows clearly how Polunin’s childhood affected his career troubles, which included hard drugs and performance and interview no-shows. To pay for his ballet training, his father and grandmother had to work abroad, and his parents eventually divorced, devastating the boy. Polunin grew up resenting his perfectionist mother, who raised him, while his dad says she just was super-organized.

Cantor wisely focuses on Polunin, who even as a child – there’s lots of home video footage – was extraordinary. The dancer’s charisma, onstage grace and unpredictable energy are palpable; as one talking head admits, you just can’t take your eyes off him.

The director is less successful in interviews with those around Polunin, refusing to ask hard questions about the dancer’s behaviour. One moment in which Polunin’s father comments on his son’s tattoos is telling but could have been explored further.

Still, we’re treated to Polunin’s very moving reunion with his first dance teacher and a performance and post-show reunion with his family.

Above all, the film examines the sacrifices and human costs that go into building a world-class career. It also makes you think about ambition and the human spirit.

This is a must-see for ballet lovers, educators, stage parents and anyone interested in what goes into making art.

Dance writer Martha Schabas interviews National Ballet of Canada rising star Robert Stephen after the Friday (February 10), 7 pm screening of Dancer at the Yonge & Dundas 24.