In the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale The Red Shoes, a young girl is given an auspicious gift: a pair of slippers, stitched with a curse. Once she slips on the red shoes, she can’t stop dancing. The shoes carry her out into the dark forest, and into an open grave. In the fairytale, she is doomed to dance until a kind executioner cuts off her feet. In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1948 film by the same name, the young dancer (Moira Shearer) throws herself from an open window.
As in Romantic ballets such as “Giselle,” dance in The Red Shoes is both a force of damnation and salvation. And that such works feature emotionally fragile leads whose love for dance leads them to self-destruct is no coincidence. The theme repeats in Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychodrama Black Swan, where the protagonist (Natalie Portman) starves herself and self-harms, and by the end, loses control over both body and sanity. And in the 2000 camp classic Center Stage, a B-plot involves a gifted dancer (Susan May Pratt) battling an eating disorder. By the end of the film, she gives up dance altogether.
While the persistence of these narratives reflects the very real pressures that ballet exerts on women’s bodies, there is more to a dancer’s life and evolution than an inevitable descent into madness. Polina, danser sa vie a 2017 film by director Valérie Müller and French dancer and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, offers a reprieve. Instead of focusing on the challenges of the dance world and the insane mental fortitude it takes to succeed in it, the film centers on a young woman’s reckoning with dance as an artistic medium.
Polina lives with her parents in their small house on the outskirts of Moscow. As a child, her parents enroll her at a ballet academy, where she trains in the strict Russian Vaganova ballet style with the hopes of joining the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet. Love of ballet is love of nation; her parents have sacrificed much, and hope Polina will bring them honor. Polina dutifully complies.
Though she is a talented dancer who remains in the academy despite her family’s financial difficulties, Polina feels limited by the strictures of this rarified world. In one scene from her childhood, she walks home through the snowy forest at dusk and breaks out into an impromptu dance. Her jerky movements are wildly different from the careful, almost robotic movements of her training.
Anastasia Shevtsova, the Mariinsky Ballet-trained actress who plays the titular character as an adult, subtly shows Polina’s frustration with classical ballet. As she rehearses a pas de deux in the academy studios, Shevtsova’s form is rigid, her expression flat, even as her instructor’s commands echo louder in the studio space. Polina may be technically good, but artistry requires more than a lifeless repetition of the steps.
At first, Polina’s audition for the Bolshoi Ballet seems like it will be a major plot point. This would have mirrored Black Swan and Center Stage, both films that streamlined their plots around coveted company roles. Yet in Polina, we aren’t meant to question our female lead’s aptitude. Polina’s audition for the Bolshoi happens behind a closed door, and her acceptance into the company is revealed almost as an afterthought.
What happens next is more vital. Immediately after Polina’s Bolshoi audition, the film cuts to a performance from a contemporary ballet company. Polina sits in the audience, watching. Two dancers move in pedestrian motions, collisions leading into a series of lifts and assisted collapses.
In the darkened theater, the camera lingers over Polina’s face, entranced, as she transforms from watched object into watching subject. This vulnerability and raw movement style is a stark contrast to the earlier scenes of Polina’s ballet training, where dance phrases look more like athletic drills than art.
“I want to dance like that,” she tells her temporary love interest Adrien, a French student at the academy. Adrien happens to have accepted an offer to dance with the same troupe they saw perform, a company based in Aix en Provence. He could get her an audition, he tells her—half dare, half promise. So Polina follows him to France.
Away from the wintry rigidity of the Bolshoi, Polina’s world becomes a little lighter. Dancers thrash and bounce in the light-filled studios, wearing bright warm-ups and knee pads for the floor choreography. Polina auditions for the company’s artistic director, Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche) and is accepted. Liria—in a rare moment of unconvincing plot—gives Polina a lead role in their upcoming showcase, urging her to shake her classical training. Free from the hyper-feminine fragility of ballet, Polina is encouraged to be communicative and grounded, to give equal direction and feel her own weight.
But where a lesser film would end here, Polina complicates the story. Even under Liria’s tutelage, Polina has trouble matching her movements to other people’s visions. “I’m sick of mindlessly executing people’s choreography,” she says. She doesn’t just want a less restrictive dance language. She wants to create.
Polina sets off again, wandering around European cities looking for work. Female dancers are replaceable and rarely needed. When no company will take her, Polina finds refuge as a barmaid at a Belgian club. She meets Karl (Jérémie Bélingard) a male dancer who becomes her roommate. Karl happens to lead improvisation jams for teenagers in the city. At Karl’s urging, Polina tags along.
Here, the movie becomes something distinct. Karl plays a song, and encourages his students to move to the music however they like. Improvisation can be a daunting task for classical dancers, who are rarely given opportunities for self-expression. Polina—as we know—has done this before, but never in front of an audience. Now, in a studio in Antwerp, the teens yell for Polina to dance. Karl plays an EDM track. Polina grins, and comes alive.
Though the film Polina is based on Bastien Vivès’s graphic novel of the same name, Müller and Preljocaj changed a key aspect of the novel’s plot. In the graphic novel, Polina becomes a successful contemporary dancer. Here, Polina becomes a choreographer instead.
This choice was a political one. According to an interview between New York Times dance writer Gia Kourlas and the film’s directors, the plot change was intended to reflect the gender imbalance in leadership positions in ballet. “Young women choreographers don’t have the same access to the world of power,” Preljocaj told Kourlas. “This is a fact and I think something to correct.”
Though women make up the majority of the field, ballet is dominated by men in leadership positions, from artistic direction to choreography. There are numerous, often intersecting reasons that contribute to this gender disparity. Pointe work, for instance, is highly specialised, and demands of women long hours in the studio to strengthen and perfect the technique. Whereas men, fewer by number in the studio, have more chances for growth, and more room for error.
Gender roles embedded in the art form can also contribute to an entrenched sense of who should lead and who should follow. To be a successful female partner means to relinquish control to the male partner; if you try and lift yourself, you fall on your face.
Over the past few years, dancers and choreographers are striving to change the culture. In 2014, Patricia Barker, former Artistic Director of Grand Rapids Ballet and now the Artistic Director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, created a platform called MOVEMEDIA that showcased female choreographers, such as Annabelle Lopez Ochoa. Since working with Barker, Ochoa has choreographed for English National Ballet, a company that, under the directorship of Tamara Rojo, premiered “She” an all-female choreographer bill in 2016.
The same year, Dance Theater of Harlem’s artistic director Virginia Johnson created a new program to support female choreographers called “Women Who Move Us,” for their new season. And just this March, the Royal Ballet debuted the first piece by a female choreographer in nearly two decades. As Guardian columnist Luke Jennings wrote of Crystal Pite’s trailblazing piece, “Thursday’s first night was lent added significance by the astonishing and dismaying fact that Pite is the first woman to choreograph for Covent Garden’s main stage this century.”
In telling the creative journey of a ballerina turned choreographer, Polina fills the absence of dancer-artist narratives, while also illuminating the lack of these narratives in the ballet world.
Yet the film also essentially eliminates the structural obstacles to gender equality, creating a dance environment in which Polina’s path towards choreographic success feels possible, and almost inevitable. Very real difficulties exist, and are worth engaging with. What happens to your psyche when you are told over and over again that you are entirely replaceable? What happens when the choreography tells you the same thing?
Of course, discussions around gender parity are (and should) only be the first frontier of progress in the ballet world. Ballet is still shamefully racially homogenous—as Phil Chan illustrated in the Huffington Post, the art form is stratified through the high cost of dance lessons, minimal representation of dancers of color, and exclusionary “acceptable” body types. “People still have not embraced the notion of diversity within this art form because it’s always been seen as an exclusive art form,” Virginia Johnson, the artistic director of Dance Theater of Harlem, told Pointe Magazine. “It’s not only been exclusive of people of color—it’s been very class-oriented.”
Only recently have mainstream ballet companies attempted to portray same-sex partnerships onstage. At New York City Ballet, two pieces have premiered over the course of two weeks in 2017; “The Times Are Racing” by Justin Peck, and Lauren Lovette’s “Not Our Fate.” To Gia Kourlas, “the effect was startling and wonderful. A pas de deux is usually about love and usually between a man and a woman. But here were two men, not incidentally men of color, in a tender, athletic display of desire.”
Instead, since the 19th century, ballerinas have often been cast as the fragile, ephemeral counterparts to the heroic and commanding male dancers, repeating and reinforcing entrenched gender norms.
Though Polina misses a valuable opportunity to explore the unique challenges of dancers vying for choreographic legitimacy, the choice to focus on Polina’s creative processes is thrilling.
The third and final act of the film follows Polina as she encounters her first choreographic partnership in Karl, and features some of the loveliest scenes in the movie. At one point, Polina and Karl dance a spontaneous pas de deux by the docks, against the Antwerp skyline.
It’s telling that Polina has found herself in this city, far from the ghosts of London and Paris and Moscow’s storied dance pasts. Belgium has long been a center for avant garde—Maurice Béjart premiered his Ballet du XXe Siècle in Brussels in 1960—and the city is now home to one of the largest contemporary dance festivals in Europe. That Karl and Polina should find such freedom and inspiration in Antwerp is suggestive of a new horizon in itself.
Later, Karl suggests Polina enter her choreography into a showcase at the Montpellier Dance Festival. As Polina starts to choreograph the piece on the two of them, she finds she can’t stop. They play and create, dancing deep into the night and into the morning. One night leads into two, then more. They sleep on mats in the studio, goof around and explore, eat take-out noodles and dance until the rising sun filters into their temporary studio space. It’s a winsome, beautiful scene, and a perfect inversion of The Red Shoes. Except in this film, the young dancer is fully in control.