Review: Polina… all about the dance, the beautiful, magnificent dance….

Published On April 4, 2014 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews


By Batien Vivès

Jonathan Cape

polina cover

Polina’s simple and frankly rather obvious storyline delicately and gently builds up a life story, describing to perfection the trials and tribulations of a young Russian girl undergoing ballet training, all beautifully illustrated by Vivès, capturing every essence of movement and form that you could ever want from a comic on dance.

The essence of the grace and fluidity of the dancer comes through at all times, whether they’re performing or simply relaxing, Vivès’ lines capturing every stretch, every extension, every balletic move with a simplicity and effectiveness that’s just spellbinding at times.

In here, you’ll see incredibly bold and expressive minimal line making used to create pages where the cumulative effect can take your breath away. It’s not perfection, not quite. But it’s stretching out for it.

I could litter this piece with artwork, each and every one a moment of understatement that proves decisively that less is most assuredly more. But I’ll try to avoid that, let the few examples I do pick do the work for me. First up, an older Polina in repose:


Such simplicity, just black shapes and lines strung together, so loose, so raw. But put those individual lines together, shape them with the artistic ability displayed here, and it’s a perfect piece, conveying with seemingly zero effort the quiet, studied behaviour of an artist, a dancer, holding herself just so, the casual lean on the heel of her palm as the cigarette blazes. Beautiful. (Even if it does make me crave a fag once more).

Or this one, where Polina is introduced first to Professor Bajinsky’s ideas on dance that, unbeknownst to her, will shape both the dancer, and the person she is to become:

Polina 29

Vivès’ characters are all like this, loose assemblages of shape, line and form, but brought together into a perfect whole. Take that first panel and the three teachers within, none of them fully formed; Professor Bojinsky mostly an ink blot of beard and eye hiding glasses, Mrs Petry and Mr Alinovitch similarly sketchy, a collection of lines, mere doodles almost, but take them as a whole and the effect is stunning.

Or this page, few words, so much going on…

Polina 35

The grace and beauty here is so simple, so relaxed, but so beautiful nonetheless. In fact, as I read it I couldn’t help but tarry a while, as I did repeatedly with Vivès’ imagery throughout. Something about the way he constructs panels and pages is hypnotising.

And if you break the panels down, the simplicity comes through all the more.

Shall we?


Copy (2) of Polina 35

Panel 1: The dancer’s early morning misery. Technically the most detailed panel of the page, although detail for Vivès means a few more lines to denote curtains and blankets, maybe the loose form of an alarm clock. But still the eye is pulled to the figure of Polina, and the body language is unmistakable, the exhaustion comes through so clearly.

Copy (3) of Polina 35

Panel three: Backgrounds? Who needs backgrounds? Certainly not Vivès.

Here the magic comes from the movement Vivès can create in a static image. Each time I look at this panel all I can see is Polina’s leg motion, the graceful sweep, the extension from beneath her body all the way through to the final position. And Vivès does that with what? a few marks at most.

Copy of Polina 35

Panel five: Ballet teacher Bajinsky once more just a small assemblage of line and ink blot black, Polina more angular here, with the distance between the two saying more than a thousand words or pages of art could ever do.

The story in Polina is simplicity itself, something you can very easily imagine from simply the title and the cover. In fact, Mrs B, Louise, saw the book under the coffee table and immediately guessed the general themes within. Yeah, she’s smart, but it is rather easy anyway. There’s a little of the Pygmallion about it perhaps, a tale done many times before certainly, but I’d be willing to bet it’s never been done as beautifully as this.

It is, as you may well expect, a story about a young star of the ballet, about the teachers who push and pull her in different directions. Wake, practise, practice, rest, practise, practice, rest, sleep, repeat…

The endless pressure to perform takes its toll on all, even Polina, whom teacher Bajinsky identified from a young age, his teachings shaping her worldview, Bajinsky’s ideas of performance so fixed and immutable, continuing long after she’s left his direct tutelage, they seem to speak one language of dance whilst all others converse in another.

Polina’s is hardly an easy path and it’s one that brings her into conflict with less enlightened minds, dancing a different dance. Eventually, as all must, she moves on, away from Bajinsky, away from Russia, all the time looking for that missing something, the mystery element of dance promised by Bajinsky’s teachings. Fortune is with her, a new opportunity opens up, a new form of theatre is created and the world is suddenly Polina’s oyster. That’s it, that’s Polina, delivered in little more than the back cover blurb. But that’s absolutely the point, Polina isn’t so much about story, this is no complicated plot. Or rather it is, it’s the most complicated plot of all, the plot of someone’s life. In Polina we see one young girl’s world, her art, her struggle. And it’s spellbinding.

I must mention one more thing that Vivès does brilliantly, and that’s the observance of time passing. Or rather, the non-observance. For as Polina grows, as the years pass by, there’s almost no direct reference to it, Vivès merely relying on the changing bodies of the dancers, the subtle face changes, the background details shifting, to effectively describe time’s passage, but doing so in such a fluid manner that the reader simply understands, flow unbroken, stunning.

One last moment of art…

Polina 192

That’s perfection in so many ways, the expressions, the movement, captured in static pose but also so packed  with motion and intensity. The rapt faces of the children suddenly transformed with appreciation, the sheer joy of experiencing Polina dance summing up the sheer joy of reading her story.

Polina is a rare, rare delight, story is immaterial in some ways here, this is about the journey, about the ideas, about the art of dance, about growing up, about struggling to find a place in the world, no matter how talented you are. It does all this so well, but more than anything else it does it all so very beautifully.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton
- Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he's written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard's day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children's graphic novel library in the country.

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