Polina follows an aspiring dancer from auditions as a child through to adulthood, trying to find her way in the world while reluctant to let go of what she was taught in her formative years. Bojinsky is famed for his high standards and often reduces students to tears, leaving them convinced they should quit dancing for good. He is no less exacting in his training of Polina, but she is determined to stick with it. When she moves on, she begins to realise others see his technique as old-fashioned and try to get her to forget what he taught her. She finds herself torn between the two, studying with him in secret and jeopardising her position at the theatre school. There is a sense of Polina being over-burdened and pulled in too many directions throughout which adds a sense of heaviness, of enclosure, to the novel.
The depictions of ballet training play on some of the over-done stereotypes - her mother tells her not to show if it hurts when the teachers test her suppleness in the early pages of the book. Bojinsky’s views that you can’t be taught grace and other basic elements required of dancers also feels at odds with reality. He is an unsettling character, demanding and unreasonable, and I spent large sections of the book worried that his behaviour was going to escalate. Polina’s devotion to him seems illogical on the surface, but she feels a sense of loyalty to him because he saw something in her and kept her working hard to achieve her potential. There’s a sense that he shaped her as a dancer, even though her career diverts from his technique. Their relationship made me quite uncomfortable, but it was interesting to see the dynamic between mentor and pupil explored.
Polina rarely seems happy, caught in constant conflict with herself and eager to please others before herself. When she suffers setbacks that would be fairly devastating they are quickly passed over and this can create a slight distance with the emotional side of the characters.
The plot progresses at quite a pace, leaving much left to be assumed as we jump forward across the years. This can help sweep you along with the story with no time to stop and dwell, but it can also be a bit jarring as you have to discern how much time has passed and where we find Polina now.
This was my first time reading a graphic novel and although it was easy to get wrapped up in, I was left wanting something more from it. The illustrations themselves nicely capture movement and resist being bogged down in too much detail. For fans of ballet and coming-of-age stories, this is an interesting book to pick up.
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