Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Only When I Dance

Brazil’s distinctive sounds, including sambas, choros, bossas, or MPB, have seduced scores of listeners. However, aside from a bit of licensed Jorge Ben, the music heard in a new Brazilian documentary is entirely European classical music. Screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, Beadie Finzi’s Only When I Dance (trailer here) chronicles the struggles of two young ballet dancers living in the favelas of Rio.

Their circumstances are too mean and their skin is too dark to be accepted by the snobbish Brazilian ballet companies. The only road to a successful dance career for Irlan and Isabela runs through the international dance competitions. If they place highly, they can win an opportunity tto study abroad, and even sign on with a foreign dance company. However, competition will be fierce.

Dance is defined by sacrifice—particularly that of Irlan and Isabela’s poor but loving parents. A ballet career looks like a ridiculous long-shot for their children, but there do not seem to be a lot of other prospects in Rio’s favelas. Fortunately, they also have a no-nonsense coach to keep them focused.

Finzi’s approach brings to mind Hoop Dreams, giving nearly as much time to the parents as she allots to the young dancers. Since it documents real life, it does not conclude with storybook endings for all involved. Refreshingly though, Finzi displays confidence in her subjects, showing their complete competitive performances (usually clocking in around two minutes) unedited. Indeed, these are some of the strongest scenes of the film. Especially memorable is Irlan’s decision to perform the avant-garde “Nijinsky” after making the first round of cuts in a Swiss competition. It is a bold choice, but his performance is remarkably powerful, yet we have to wonder if will prove too nontraditional for the judges’ tastes.

It is impossible not to root for these young people when watching Dance. They are extremely hard-working and absolutely committed. Without a doubt, they are good kids, but in terms of personality, they are kind of boring. Like Olympic gymnasts and figure-skaters, all they know is training.

Dance is completely earnest and achingly well-intentioned. To its credit, it lets the audience see first-hand the gifts of its young subjects, rather than simply relying on others to characterize their performances. Though admirable in their seriousness, the young protagonists unfortunately come across a bit one-dimensional. Still, those with a passion for dance, or an interest in Brazilian culture, will find it a fascinating documentary. It screens as part of the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26th, 27th, 30th, and May 2nd.