Dancers & Companies

A Conversation With the Artists Behind Your New Favorite Ballet Movie

Niels Schneider and Anastasia Shevtsova in a still from Polina. Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

In the new ballet film Polina, opening Friday in New York, the camera keeps closing in on people intently watching dance: teachers appraising pupils; a mother focused on her child's recital; rapt spectators at a performance; dancers in the studio concentrating on a choreographer's moves.

It's no accident, say the movie's co-directors, famed French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and his filmmaker wife, Valérie Müller, speaking in French during a joint phone conversation. Citing Marcel Duchamp's assertion that it is the observer who completes a work of art, Preljocaj contends, "A statue in a museum at night does not exist. It exists only when the first visitor arrives and enters into a relationship with it. We wanted to honor that gaze." Müller quickly suggests another reason: "There's a lot of looking in a dancer's life. I'm not a dancer, but I've filmed them. And I've always noticed that part of the job is looking at the other dancers—'Is she doing this better than I am?' "

The title character, an aspiring Moscow ballerina played for most of the movie by wide-eyed Vaganova Ballet Academy graduate Anastasia Shevtsova, isn't one of those competitive, sharp-elbowed types familiar in movies like Black Swan and The Turning Point. Polina has plenty of doubts and anxieties, but Müller, who wrote the script, notes that the filmmakers were consciously discarding clichés: "We wanted to show a present-day young woman who lives normally, going to clubs with friends who aren't dancers." Another point of pride is that Polina, which opens nationwide after its Los Angeles premiere September 1, uses no body doubles—the actors all do their own dancing, and lots of it.

As Polina's dreams of a career at the Bolshoi start coming true, she's dazzled by the contemporary dance of a French choreographer (who in some ways resembles Preljocaj and whose dances are, of course, identical) as well as a gorgeous French dancer (Niels Schneider). Like many young people before her, she leaves home to find her own destiny, first following the dancer to the south of France—headquarters for Preljocaj's company and that of the movie's fictional choreographer Liria, played by French actress Juliette Binoche—and then striking out on her own to Belgium, where she meets a street choreographer portrayed by Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Jérémie Bélingard.

French actress Juliette Binoche plays the choreographer Liria. Photo courtesy Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Polina's journey from classical ballet to contemporary dance to hip hop originated in an eponymous 2011 graphic novel by the popular French comic-book artist Bastien Vivès. Preljocaj and Müller were fans, but their film goes beyond the book, fleshing out Polina's childhood and family (she's played as a girl by Veronika Zhovnytska); and the French choreographer portrayed by Binoche in the film was a man in the novel. "We felt Polina had too many men in her life," Preljocaj says.

The original plan was for Müller to direct the actors while Preljocaj dealt with the camera. But, they say, it went so well that they were soon sharing the tasks equally. And they laugh off a question about whether there were problems dispelling work-day irritants when they left the set and returned home. They found they liked having the other around as a sounding board. "When you're making a movie," Müller says, "it's all you think about anyway."

Never let it be said that The Cindies lack studio swag. Via Instagram @jamesbwhiteside

It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)

Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:

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Rant & Rave
The instant screens light up, the spell is shattered. Original performance photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

-Hey. U up?

-Ya. I'm at the ballet.

-Oh ok. Talk later.

-Nah, it's cool, it's a slow part right now.

Nope, it's not cool. Put your phone away. In the hushed darkness of an auditorium, light explodes from that screen like shrapnel, blasting those around you out of their viewing experience.

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Rant & Rave
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2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.

Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.

Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?

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Peter Martins rehearsing Ocean's Kingdom in 2011. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Dear dancers of the New York City Ballet,

I realize that you are scared because the future of the New York City Ballet is uncertain; you don't know who will man the ship, and your career that you've worked your entire life for feels under attack.

On social media some of you alluded to the idea that Peter Martins' downfall is a result of the times; a maelstrom of allegations sweeping the country, bringing down powerful men, for misdeeds proven and unproven. I understand that for many of you this feels unfair: Peter has helped you personally ascend the ranks of the company by believing in you, and mentoring you. For others the described behavior may feel abstract; it isn't something you've witnessed, and many of the accusations occurred long before your time, maybe even before you were born. And above all, how could you possibly betray the man who plucked you from the school and gave you the chance of a lifetime: to dance with one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world? How could you see this person, who gave you this chance, this gift, as the monster he's being painted as?

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Arthur Mitchell in class, 1960s. Photo by Milton Oleaga. Arthur Mitchell Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Collection, Columbia University.

Throughout his remarkable career, the fiercely determined, intelligent and energetic Arthur Mitchell has become accustomed to being called a trailblazer. "Being a typical Aries, I like being the first," he says, laughing. "That's what I've been doing all my life."

This is true, especially when it comes to the discussion at the forefront of today's national dialogue about dance: diversity in ballet.

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Mandy Moore loves the chaos of live television. Photo by Lee Cherry, Courtesy Bloc Agency

In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win.

You've come a long way on "So You Think You Can Dance"—from assistant to the choreographer (Season 1) to creative producer (Season 14). What keeps you returning to the show?

"So You Think You Can Dance" was one of my first jobs, so it feels like home. I love the chaos of live television; as soon as one show is over you're on to the next.

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Dance As Activism
Photo via

Last Saturday night, Dance/NYC, Gibney Dance and the Actors Fund hosted a conversation on sexual harassment in the dance world. The floor was open for anyone in attendance to share whatever they wanted: personal stories, resources, suggestions.

The event brought to light some of the questions the dance world is facing, and though we don't yet have all the answers, it helped lay out the areas we need to address:

What would dance-specific sexual harassment training and policies look like?

Corporate harassment trainings tend to tell employees to avoid touching coworkers and to not wear revealing clothing in the workplace. Obviously, these rules aren't applicable to the dance world. Many in attendance agreed that everyone in the dance world should undergo training, so what should it include?

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The South African–born Pita competed in disco dancing and later performed with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures. Today, he is Bourne's offstage partner, and the pair live together in London. His latest work, which premiered in November, is a one-act adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 Texan novel, The Wind, for The Royal Ballet.

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We've been a fan of the space bun look since our Spice Girls days, which is exactly why we were so excited when hair and makeup artist Angela Huff brought the double-bun style back for our January cover shoot with American Ballet Theatre's Erica Lall. To give the '90s style a modern twist, Huff added a few braided details. Here's how to copy the look for your next class:

Photo by Nathan Sayers

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Dancers & Companies
Caleb Teicher in "Variations." PC Sally Cohn, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

At age 24, dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher already has accolades beyond his years. But this week, the Bessie Award–winning performer adds another impressive feat to his resumé: His company's Joyce Theater debut. Though tap is Teicher's focus, he masterfully combines everything from jazz to Lindy Hop to hip hop in his fresh, clever choreography.

We caught up with him for our "Spotlight" series:

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