Choreographer Angelin Preljocaj on film debut Polina, its Snow White references, and why film makes life better

Cinema helps us understand our place in the world, says first-time director of his film, Polina, about a young dancer’s journey of self-discovery through dance – one the Frenchman says mirrors his own

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 June, 2017, 1:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 12:41pm

A 60-year-old who has already scaled the heights of his profession as one of the world’s most prominent contemporary dance choreographers, Angelin Preljocaj may appear an unlikely candidate for a change of career. Yet here he is with his full-length feature film debut as a director.

“I think it’s Godard who said that movies make life better because they help you understand what your life is [about],” the French-born Albanian says in heavily accented English. “It’s very important for me, because life passes so fast and the sensation of life is very fragile. Movies help you to put the focus and emotion on your life, and to understand it better.”

Polina charts a young ballerina’s convoluted journey of self-discovery, going from classical ballet to modern dance and, finally, improvisation and choreographing her own work. Co-directed with his screenwriter wife Valerie Muller, this big-screen adaptation of Bastien Vives’ graphic novel is a treat for dance lovers.

“It’s the same journey [as my own], in a certain sense,” says Preljocaj, who began by studying classical ballet but subsequently turned to modern dance, training with the influential contemporary dance teacher Karin Waehner in Paris, and then with Merce Cunningham in New York. He founded his own troupe, later renamed Ballet Preljocaj, in 1984.

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“But there’s no fight between classical and contemporary dance [in my experience]; it is just the journey of how to become an artist,” he says. “[The character] Polina doesn’t find her way in classical ballet, but even in modern ballet, she doesn’t find that [either] – she then leaves and goes another way. She’s fighting with herself to find this way to become a great artist.”

If there is a message to his film, Preljocaj says it’s the benefit of “opening your way of expression”. “For example, to have the technical luggage of classic dance is very good – because it helps you – but you also need to find a different way of moving in contemporary dance. And if we mix [those two] together, we can find something extraordinary,” he says.

That is a motto that he has taken to heart with his famously theatrical story ballets (albeit a minority among his often abstract works), which not only blend classical ballet and contemporary dance, but also bring a transgressive touch to the form. Few would forget his Romeo and Juliet (1990), set in a totalitarian state; or Rite of Spring (2001), featuring a gang rape; or the tastefully erotic Snow White (2008), with a dominatrix stepmother to go with the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes.

By comparison, Polina proceeds in such an understated manner that there’s almost a gracefulness to its pure and simple narrative. “The story of Polina is the story of an artist,” says Preljocaj. “The same story can be about a girl who paints [instead of one who dances]. She’s trying to find these ways [of expression that] exactly correspond to her personality.”

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Preljocaj considers “the first problem of the film” to be casting an actress who can perform both classical and contemporary dance, speak French and Russian, and act well. “She has to be [a perfect] 10 in each category,” he adds. The title role eventually went to Anastasia Shevtsova from Saint Petersburg, Russia, who beat out some 600 other contestants from around the world in the auditions.

“I studied classical ballet for 11 years,” says Shevtsova, 21, “but I’ve always dreamed to make films, so I’m very happy to be in this project and to work with such amazing people. This project wasn’t like hard work – of course it was hard, but the atmosphere was like a camp.” She bursts into laughter. “I mean, every day I learned something and met new, interesting people. For me, it was a huge experience.”

According to Muller, whose previous collaborations with Preljocaj include a TV documentary on the choreographer, her objective was always to populate the film with an even mix of dancers and actors. “Because all the actors could influence the dancers, and the dancers could influence the actors,” she says. “It is very interesting to mix those two worlds.”

As a consequence, Polina’s dance partners in the film include both the French-Canadian actor Niels Schneider, who isn’t a dancer by profession, and Jeremie Belingard, the principal dancer of the Paris Opera Ballet.

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Adding a further layer of intrigue is Juliette Binoche’s casting as a modern dance choreographer based in Aix-en-Provence in southern France, whose production of Snow White impresses Polina so much that it changes the course of her career, as what the audience sees on-screen is really the version by Preljocaj, whose troupe has its headquarters in Aix-en-Provence.

“You know, Bastien Vives, the author of the graphic novel, put the images of Snow White into the story; then I just [followed] what he has done,” Preljocaj protests. “But obviously, nobody knows that. Then they think, ‘Oh, Preljocaj thinks he’s very extraordinary.’ But it’s not true. It’s just from the storyboard. And obviously, because I’m the choreographer and director, why go to take another’s choreography? There is a logic in this process.”

While it was his first experience with film directing, Preljocaj says he was relaxed enough because, “Valerie takes me off all the worries – we are a dynamic [team] together”. The husband and wife had agreed to split the work early, with Muller writing the script at the beginning, Preljocaj handling the editing at the end, and the two directing side-by-side in-between.

It helped that they had Binoche in the ensemble. “Binoche was also very important in the process,” says Preljocaj. “She has very high admiration for the dancers in general, because she knows what it is [like] to work as a dancer. She has a lot of respect for the dancers. She tried a lot to help the dancers to become better actors, and the dancers also helped her to be better in dance. They’re always feeding each other in the process.”

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From preparation to filming, Binoche spent almost a year working with the Polina crew. The choreographer was most impressed by the actress’s work ethic. “She works so hard – she’s really [working] like a dancer in her head,” he says. “That’s why I was very confident [with her], because dance takes so, so much work. If you don’t work one day, then you go backward. If you want to stay at a level, you have to work every day.”

As the proud maker of a coming-of-age movie about an up-and-coming talent, does Preljocaj have any words of wisdom to offer young dancers aspiring to turn professional? “Like I said, work every day, and never forget your dream.” He pauses for several seconds, before adding, “And wash your clothes.”

Polina opens on June 8

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