Polina, Portrait of an Artist in the Making

French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj has made his first foray into the world of fictional cinema by adapting a successful French graphic novel for the screen. Accompanied by co-director Valérie Müller, the movie “Polina,” out in U.S. theaters on August 25, recounts the years of training undertaken by a young ballerina who, as she prepares to become a lead dancer, decides to abandon her career and live her own experiences.

The film follows her artistic and sentimental journey from her native Russia to Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, where she discovers contemporary dancing with the talented Liria Elsaj (played by Juliette Binoche). The movie then takes audiences to Antwerp in Belgium, where Polina becomes a choreographer. This modern-day fairy tale is both realistic and dreamlike, and stars young dancer Anastasia Shevtsova, who interprets the heroine in a credible performance of rare intensity.

Interview with Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj

Angelin Preljocaj is an internationally renowned French dancer and choreographer who subtly combines classical ballet and contemporary styles. He regularly works with other artists from the worlds of music, fine art, design, fashion and literature. The New York City Ballet has invited him to choreograph several different performances for its dancers, including “La Stravaganza” in 1997 and “Spectral Evidence” in 2013. Preljocaj received the Samuel H. Scripps Award for lifetime achievement from the American Dance Festival in 2014, and will be back in the United States in early 2018 for the tour of his latest production, “La Fresque,” inspired by traditional Asian folktales.

France-Amérique: You developed and directed “Polina” together. What were your respective roles throughout the creative process?

Valérie Müller: We both loved Bastien Vivès’ graphic novel, and the modernity of its heroine, Polina. The character avoids the stereotypes of the classical dancer, often described as anorexic and hysterical. I wrote the screenplay based on her journey to break free and emancipate herself. But I also designed the story to reposition it in a more specific familial and social context than the one portrayed in the graphic novel. At the same time, Angelin wrote the choreography and framed the shots on-set, while I managed the composition and direction.

How do you film dance?

Angelin Preljocaj: We were both comfortable with representing dance on film. Valérie had already directed a documentary about dancing, and I always film my ballets. In Polina, we had to use a widescreen format to portray the dancers’ movements within the settings. We also filmed extensively with shoulder-mounted cameras during the training scenes, which required close-up shots to capture the dancers’ work. As for the final dance duet, we wanted a sequence shot to be able to convey the emotion of the performance, and we were forced to use a crane to ensure the camera was filming from the perspective of both the partner and the audience. The scene became a medley for three between the crane and the two dancers!

Which movies have inspired you?

A.P.: There are so many! But the one that stands out for me is Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It’s not a movie about dance, but the whole work is choreographed. Both in the way the camera moves and the presence of the bodies on-screen, the movie shares many similarities with contemporary dance.

Other than being an accomplished dancer, Anastasia Shevtsova – who plays the role of Polina – has proven her talents as an actress.

V.M.: We saw almost 600 dancers in France and Russia. When we met Anastasia, she had just finished the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint-Petersburg, the Russian high temple of classical dance. The filmed casting session convinced us on the spot. We had found our actress!

A.P.: We refused to have dance double performing with the actress. Juliette Binoche and Niels Schneider didn’t have one either. They really danced! This decision implied enormous preparation work; Juliette Binoche trained for two hours on her own every day for ten months, and I included Niels in “Retour à Berratham,” a production with 12 dancers and actors presented at the Festival d’Avignon before we began filming. In return, the dancers in the movie prepared for their roles by attending lots of lectures. The movie was driven by this collective commitment and devotion, and the mutual curiosity inspired both the acting and dancing performances.

Article published in August 2017 issue of France-Amérique.