One of the most affecting songs in the musical “A Chorus Line” observes, “everything was beautiful at the ballet.” The amount of sweat, strain and pain that goes into creating that beauty has had its cinematic moments. In the 1948 classic “The Red Shoes” even the most unpretty parts of the process were made beautiful. In “Black Swan” (2010) they were made — perhaps more accurately — mind-bendingly horrific.
Adapted from Bastien Vivès’s graphic novel, “Polina” takes a largely straightforward and sometimes documentary-style approach in its depiction of a dancer’s life. The title character is first seen as a young girl in a Russian ballet school, dancing to her own beat on the way home from class. The teenage Polina, played in a confident, winning, lived-in performance by Anastasia Shevtsova (a real-life ballerina with the Mariinsky Ballet), gets a shot at the Bolshoi, but breaks away from that to follow her artistic instincts. After leaving Russia for France, however, she fails to find her groove while working with a romantic partner under the guidance of a compassionate but stern contemporary dance choreographer (Juliette Binoche). Unmoored in Europe, she later regains some exuberance in Belgium with an improvisational troupe that takes inspiration from street life and electronic dance music.
Enduring bruises, torn toenails and hard falls is only one part of a dancer’s day-to-day life. If this film’s directors, Valérie Müller and the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, don’t offer much overt material on Polina’s inner life, it’s because they don’t have to: the point of Polina, and this movie, is that her dancing is her being.
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