Thursday, July 01, 2010

Brazilian Pirouettes: Only When I Dance

Brazil’s distinctive sounds, such as sambas, choros, bossas, and MPB, have seduced scores of listeners. However, aside from a bit of licensed Jorge Ben, the music heard in this Brazilian documentary is entirely European classical music, yet it represents a potential way out for two young people living in Rio’s favelas. Chronicling the struggles of two ballet students honing their art under the meanest of conditions, British filmmaker Beadie Finzi’s Only When I Dance (trailer here) opens tomorrow in New York.

Living on the margins of Brazilian society, Irlan and Isabela’s skin is too dark to be accepted by the snobbish Brazilian ballet companies. The only road to a successful dance career for them runs through the international dance competitions, ending in Europe or the United States. If they place highly, they can win an opportunity to 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 the 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 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 truly 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 seem to 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 (of course, they have a lot of life ahead of them, hopefully). Still, those with a passion for dance, or an interest in Brazilian culture, will find it an appealing documentary. It opens tomorrow (7/2) in New York at the Cinema Village.