Polina by Bastien Vives

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Polina, a graphic novel by French cartoonist Bastien Vives, was released in a translated version by Jonathan Cape in January of this year. I recently received a copy in the mail, so maybe the book is just reaching Canadian bookstores and online retailers. It was originally published in France in 2011. (That year, Cape published another Vives graphic novel, A Taste of Chlorine.)

I have to admit it took me awhile to get into this one. At first, I was more intrigued by Vives’ bold, minimalist illustration style and less so the seemingly typical coming-of-age tale. What was different, I wondered, about the story of a young Russian student learning her craft, and taking a few hard knocks along the way? There was the ballet setting, sure, but the disaffected artist (the young ballet student, Polina) routine did not seem particularly original, nor did the trials and tribulations she faced as she is shuttled from one demanding teacher to another.

And yet, I was intrigued. Depictions in comics of classical and contemporary dance are rare (off-hand, I can’t think of a precedent). But Vives, at least to my mind, is able to pull it off with a style that is fluid, minimalist, full of bold strokes and still somehow subtle and balanced. The arrangement of brushstrokes in some panels is so delicate that it seems that if one were out of place, or there were one more or less, the whole mood would be thrown off.

Through Vives’ art, Polina and the other characters are alive on the page. Though the story may be somewhat familiar, Vives makes something new out of them through clever storytelling. And the universality often works to Polina‘s advantage. For instance, any traveller will relate to the sequence in which Polina arrives alone in a foreign city (Berlin). It’s in these wordless passages that Vives is at his best, giving us the sense of arrival in a strange, lonely city or the grace of dance through pictures alone.

(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 will be enjoyed by graphic novel fans on the lookout for something a little bit different – and for the ballet student in your life.

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