A rare illustrated look at a life in dance

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Polina by Bastien Vives

Polina. Art by Bastien Vivès.

Polina is the second graphic novel from French cartoonist Bastien Vivès

Graphic novel review—Polina by Bastien Vivès

In January, Jonathan Cape issued a translation of Polina, a graphic novel by French cartoonist Bastien Vivès. I recently received a copy in the mail. So maybe the book, originally published in France in 2011, is just reaching Canadian bookstores. (That year, Cape published another Vivès graphic novel, A Taste of Chlorine.)

I have to admit it took me awhile to get into Polina. At first, Vives’ bold, minimalist illustration style captured me more than the coming-of-age tale. What was different, I wondered, about the story of a young Russian student learning her craft, in particular this Russian student? There is the setting, sure—unusual for comics. But the disaffected artist routine is not particularly original, nor are her particular trials and tribulations.

A rare graphic novel look at ballet

And yet, I kept with it. Depictions in comics of classical and contemporary dance are rare (off-hand, I can’t think of a precedent). But Vivès pulls it off with a fluid, minimalist, style. It’s full of heavy strokes, yet somehow subtle and balanced. In some panels, the arrangement of brushstrokes is so delicate that the removal or addition of one more would throw the whole mood off.

Panels from Polina. Art by Bastien Vivès.

Finally, through clever and graceful storytelling, the cartoonist makes the artist-learning-her-craft compelling. And universal; every traveller will relate to the sequence in which Polina arrives alone in a foreign city (Berlin). Vivès vividly conveys the sense of arrival in a strange, lonely city. The artist is at his best in these wordless passages.

(Comics artist David Mazzucchelli created the brief animation below. It expands on Vives’ illustrated depiction of ballet.)

Lyrical and poetic, subtle and, in the end, beguiling, Polina is recommended for graphic novel fans looking for something a little bit different. And/or the ballet student in their life.

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