Great dancers, like great actors, escape into the skins of others. Unlike (most) actors, those skins may be lower mammalian in nature.
Polina (Anastasia Shevtsova), the title character in Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj’s affecting coming-of-age story, dances through a sundry animal kingdom. A close-up sequence of her pointe shoes mid-rehearsal conjures a horse kicking, bucking, neighing — there’s a reason they call dancers hoofers. Later, in her inchoate experiments with contemporary dance, her undulating movements are as serpentine as they are graceful. Her climactic performance is mantoid in nature, all outstretched limbs expanding and contracting.
This is the transformative power of quality dance, where the human body becomes a shape-shifting vessel for a choreographer’s most elaborate fantasies. It’s there in Jerome Robbins’ The Cage, in Swan Lake, and even, yes, in Cirque du Soleil. And it creates unimpeachable poetry in Polina.
The film is based on a graphic novel, which has become the go-to literary source for teenage angst and self-actualization — think Ghost World, Persepolis. It starts in an oppressively gloomy Moscow, where the sky is always overcast and smokestacks choke the air. It’s here that the pubescent Polina begins her ballet training under Bojinski (Aleksei Guskov), a controversial choreographer who instructs — and manhandles — his dancers with Soviet exactitude. It’s ballet school as boot camp, where those with the strongest constitutions survive.
Back home, Polina’s parents are strivers as well, struggling to make it in the middle class by extralegal means. His father traffics in something contraband — drugs, weapons, cash, we’re never quite sure — and every now and then he’s visited by gun-toting thugs demanding money. Polina’s trajectory toward the hallowed halls of the Bolshoi thus becomes their ticket out of danger and despair, placing an unfair burden on their daughter’s own needs and wants.
Which, we soon learn, involve a boy (Niels Schneider), a fellow student whose skills and ambitions direct him not to the sacredness of Russian ballet but to the freeing confines of a modern dance company in the South of France. Polina, now a nubile teenager, jettisons a Bolshoi scholarship to follow him there, where she finds herself adrift in the murky movements and emotional, character-driven demands of their choreographer, Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche, humbly bleached of her star persona).
Polina forces its protagonist through tough ultimatums — between her dreams and her family, between relationships and career — that transcend its subject. The movie’s undercurrent is Darwinian; it’s about how life forces you into unexpected directions, and the adaptations we must undergo to further our survival.
It also exemplifies the fragility of the dancer’s professional life, which is limited and precious even for the healthiest of performers. The welts, the bruises, the torn toenails all appear on Polina’s lithe body, reminders that dancers careen ever toward the finite.
Müller’s formalism is more pedestrian than Polina’s movements. The Russian ballet scenes are shot, predictably, with a shaky camera to underline their intensity; in France, on and off the sprung hardwood, the movie adopts a more liberated, electro-scored atmosphere, full of montages that feel like Danny Boyle hand-me-downs.
Working with co-director Preljocaj, an esteemed contemporary choreographer, Müller occasionally leaves us wanting more. Sequences in which Polina misses her marks and is chastised by choreographers simply cut to the next scene, but they beg to be extended. We want to witness the rigor, the repetitions, the cyclical improvements that catapult good dancers into great ones.
Black Swan, for all its masturbatory ostentation, conveyed this sense of brutal physicality in droves. Your feet hurt by the time it was over. The best dance movie I’ve seen remains Chantal Akerman’s One Day Pina Asked …, which captures the ritualistic process of dance like no other.
If Polina lacks this sense of intimacy and access, it makes up for it in sheer entertainment value and the gracious evolution of its lead character as she arcs from constriction to liberation, from militaristic order to improvisatory freedom. With its bounteous spirit, this is an easy movie to embrace. The only people that will hate it are those who believe Russian ballet is the be-all and end-all of dance. That idea is, to paraphrase a Russian axiom, one for the dustbin of history.
POLINA. Directors: Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj; Cast: Anastasia Shevtsova, Veronika Zhovnytska, Aleksey Guskov, Juliette Binoche, Niels Schneider; in Russian and French with English subtitles; Distributor: Oscilloscope; now playing at Movies of Lake Worth, Movies of Delray, Living Room Theaters at FAU and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables