Polina, opening this weekend in Los Angeles, makes deft work of melding real dancing and an accompanying narrative drama into a satisfying film. Shot using separate casts in Russia, France and Belgium, the film charts the professional and emotional progress of a young Bolshoi dancer leaving behind her ballet training and family for a chance at joining a contemporary company based in Aix-en-Provence. The title character, Polina, played with understated assurance by first time feature actress Anastasia Shevtsova is in search of dance and artistic freedom beyond the gloomy domains of Russia and the Vaganova Academy.

Polina's teacher talking to Polina in the dance class room
Polina and her teacher

The many beautifully placed choreographed scenes are by noted contemporary choreographer and company director, Angelin Preljoçaj. Valérie Müller-Preljoçaj’s muted direction and spare screenplay along with Georges Lechaptois cinematography draw stark, iconic comparisons.  In Russia Polina’s teachers are grim dungeon masters, there is snow, industrial cooling towers, the Russian mafia, ancient and inhospitable studios. In France, walks in the woods, airy glass faced studios, teachers who are eager to unlock emotion, and chances to reinvent what it means to dance.  In some ways, Polina’s choice reflects the journeys of Preljocaj and many of his European contemporaries, choreographers who began embedded in the classical dance world and felt it a dead end. For them, the way out was to kick aside convention and start over.

Subtley woven into this story are Preljoçaj’s dance scenes, many of them suffused with a rich, improvisatory theatricality. Particularly moving were the scenes with Polina and her partner Karl, a street dancer played by Jérémie Bélingard, as they rehearse in Antwerp for an upcoming choreography audition. In those moments Preljoçaj gives us the fragile, fleeting sense of dance being made on the spot. But there is other memorable dance too. A long excerpt of the pas de deux from Preljoçaj’s Mahler infused Snow White becomes the touchstone for Polina’s change of heart about the kind of dancer she wants to be. The final scene is a fully staged version of Polina and Karl performing their duo. The scene danced on a snow-covered stage hearkens back to one of the film’s opening sequences of the young Polina dancing with abandon in a snowy park. It is an apotheosis of sorts, with the Polina of the Bolshoi finally, as she says, “over” .

The film has many strong performances in supporting roles, especially from the Russian cast, by Aleksei Guskov as Bojinsky the ballet master, Kseniya Kutepova as Natalia (Polina’s mother), and Miglen Mirtchev as Polina’s father, Anton. Juliette Binoche in her role as a choreographer is the least memorable of the dancing roles, most of which were covered by accomplished dancers. Preljoçaj appears in a brief cameo as the auditioning festival director near the end of the film. The music was by the electronic music ensemble 79D who have collaborated with the choreographer on other dance productions.

For aspiring young dancers looking beyond the boundaries of ballet (which is pretty much everyone these days) Polina will have instant appeal. It is a significant addition to the world of popular cinema that focuses on dance and dancer’s lives.

(The original story for the screenplay is based on a cartooned novel by Bastien Vivès. The film, in French and Russian subtitled in English debuted in Europe in 2016. It opens for Los Angeles audiences on Friday September 1, at the West Los Angeles Nuart Theatre.

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