Polina, Review The Literary Review, March 2014
Bastein Vives’ new graphic novel, Polina (Jonathan Cape 2014), is the next step in his ongoing fascination with the body, and the way it moves in space. Charting the education of a young Russian ballet dancer, from her enrolment into ballet school as a young child, to her return to the school as an accomplished, professional dancer, the book springs with the graceful motion of its characters.
It begins with Polina strapped into the backseat of a car, being driven by her mother to the Bojinksy Academy for auditions. Her mothers words come from the front seat, telling her to remain quiet and to hide any pain she might feel whilst the dance teacher manipulates her limbs, testing for suppleness. Throughout, Polina’s eyes remain wide, and her mouth shut.
From then on, we meet three different dance teachers that enter Polina’s life as she progresses up the ladder. Bojinsky, the fusty old classical dance teacher, all wool jumpers and tweedy jackets, awkward and distant. Polina shines in his academy, and is noticed by the very archetype of the ballet ma’am, Mrs. Litovsky, replete with slim line ciggies, Ray Charles sunglasses and razor sharp tongue. Polina escapes from her academy in the theatre to an avant guarde troop of dancers, headed up by the skeletal Mikhail, a cross between hellraiser and Duncan goodhew, in a rollneck.
These are the three paths on offer to Polina: the conservative, the commercial and the closed-circuit artsy crowd. She excels at all three, but is always uncomfortable, a little out of place within these sectarian creeds, each blinkered by its own absoluteness. It is only when, heartbroken at a failed love affair, she takes the train to Berlin, lonely, lost and out on a limb, that things really start to work for her. Away from the vast pretention of the Russian art world, the air kisses the cocktails and the snipey comments, she meets a group of actors who celebrate the raw communication of her dance. Suddenly she is combining the separate channels of her education, expressing all three in a manner unique to herself. And here is the core of the novel: the mute nerve stricken child, mani0ulated by the towering adults, has evolved into a passionate, independent young woman, with her own tastes, her own style. As Bojinsky says to her: “People often have good reasons for doing things. Those people are kidding themselves... People who justify themselves have already lost. You’re the only person who needs to know why you’re doing this show.”
For his last book, A Taste of Chlorine, Vives combined pencil drawings with the flat Photoshop colourfill, giving an audience a palette of swimming pool turquoises and creamy flesh tones. For this book, rendered in black white and a single light grey, his style is more impressionistic. Scratchy pen lines, flowing brushpens and large puddles of black shadow suggest not just the presence but also the movement of the figures. It is only on closer inspection that we can see these lines are not made on paper, but on an electronic tablet, which allows for a greater experimentation and freedom for the drawing hand: as long as you’ve saved your layers, the delete button is so much more forgiving than the redraw.
Polina herself looks like a delicate ragdoll – large ears, simian brow ski-slope nose and when she grows up she looks like a TopShop illustration: handbag, fringe cut, like she just stepped out of a salon. With sparse dialogue and no narrator, Vives is an expert in telling the story through the images; he must surely work from film footage or photographs, his expressions are so lifelike, the body language so expressive. In a Taste of chlorine, the reader was presented with the human form suspended in water: an array of abstract shapes, with fingers and toes. In Polina, again, the characters float in empty space, dancing through the frames with no shadows or floor lines to anchor them to reality. It is precisely the lack of detail surrounding his dancers that adds to a reality of his work – when a dancer leaps, her background, her context fades momentarily, becomes invisible under the tension of the moment.
This is not to say all of his illustrations work. There is an inconsistency in style, which moves from sloppy doodle to elegant line from one frame to the next. Some of his dancers, in the more athletic poses, seem as if their improbably spindly legs are about to snap off, while often the hands that Vives draws look like gardening gloves suspended on matchsticks. But so what if the detail isn’t exact – this is impressionism, a style of drawing that complements the vagueity of the narrative. This book is as distinct as a lingering memory, a savored thought that slips from scene to scene, across a time span that is not delineated by dates and separations. It is this ethereal quality that gives the story substance, that makes it linger in the mind, that gives the book its weight.