Defying the idea that ballet is an art form steeped in the history of the wealthy white elite, this documentary captures the dreams of two black children from the Favela in Brazil, who, despite constant prejudice and doubt, are both determined to beat the odds and follow their dreams to use dancing as an escape rarely found in their tough day to day lives. Written by
Sometimes the will to achieve is enough. And in real life: only sometimes.
"Take your passion, make it happen," might be a suitable refrain for Jennifer Beals supported by three stunt doubles in Flashdance. But aspiring ballet dancers in the real world need more than heartfelt enthusiasm.
In the West, we take 'art' very much for granted. A luxury to enjoy with a certain level of disposable income. Hardly a matter of life and death.
Even for penniless performers and artistic martyrs, it is rarely the case that social services will not ensure your survival if audiences are welded to Friday Night with Jonathan Ross. And won't go to anything live unless it involves a rich grandfather's funeral. Billy Elliot, good luck to him. Hardly a starving Ethiopian, is he? For the kids on the bad block of Rio de Janeiro, life is slightly different. In the sprawling favelas, principal career openings for 17-yr olds like Irlan tend to involve white stuff you stick up your nose. "It's a short life," says his dad. "Either jail or the coffin." In breakout mode, Only When I Dance follows two young (real life) prodigies from bullet-ridden backstreets to international competitions with the rich and powerful.
Sharing some of Irlan's journey is Isabela, another talented young hopeful. And dance teacher Mariza. Mariza is from the 'luckier side of the tracks.' She lives in a sprawling suburb-the-size-of-a-city on the edge of Rio. Wealth is the norm and crime is quite rare. Barra da Tijuca and the Complexo do Alemão favelas couldn't be more different. But during the day they meet at a city centre dance school where Mariza hopes she can offer something to youngsters who have nothing. As well as acclimatizing them to the hurdles they will face.
Ballet is expensive, and the school can only sponsor so much. And there's the financial and emotional debt into which the youngsters' families descend. The stress on the teenagers and the burdens of likely failure versus the slim hope of success. Destruction of any form of social life beyond the all-consuming world of ballet. These are documented well rather than commented on. Although no-one stops to question ballet as an institution. To ask whether there might be something innately dodgy about twisting your bones into unnatural shapes for the rest of your life. People pay good pennies to see you pirouette on deformed feet, after all.
One of the failings of many films that try to appeal to ballet lovers is the strain of tailoring a story that fits in enough good dancing. Or finding dramatic hooks to excuse sufficient dance and justify the effort. Only When I Dance sidesteps both problems neatly. As well-constructed documentary it contains emotion but avoids cheesiness. Secondly, the main dances are competition ones that only last two minutes each. This yields a further joy when a traditional ballet piece is contrasted with an extremely modern rendition (dramatising the turbulent life of Nijinsky). This second piece will introduce many non-aficionados to a type of ballet they may not have previously witnessed. And without the fearfully long set pieces that dog otherwise excellent offerings such as Center Stage.
What I like about Only When I Dance is the way it shows how an artistic calling can be imbued with life-and-death determination. Young people from the slums of Rio de Janeiro frequently exhibit this desire for knowledge and betterment that shames the schoolchildren of richer parents. Quite simply, it is their only hope. A chance not 'to live the dream' but to survive where others will not.
Following the military regime days when education was stunted, many young Brasilians today exhibit a genuine passion for learning and the arts. You can queue for two hours in Rio for the midnight premiere of a difficult art film. Retrospectives from Maya Deren to Marlon Brando sell out quickly and box office prices are not an unaffordable luxury. Cinema bookshops boast works by Derrida next to those of Godard. So for anyone feeling sentimental about late 60's Paris fervour and taking to the streets for art, Rio can be unexpectedly refreshing. What I like less about Only When I Dance is that, in common with nearly all export-driven movies, it portrays Brazilian society as only two compartments. A downtrodden lowlife that is the mainstay of films like City of God and Elite Squad and then a nebulous rich that either cheat and lie on the beach or do good deeds. The vibrant mainstream middle-classes, portrayed in under-recognised films like A Casa de Alice, continue to be surplus to box-office requirements.
"Prejudice is my world," says Isabela's mother, commenting on class and skin colour barriers that officially don't exist. They are realities Isabela has to deal with. The gun battles outside their window and alluded to in the film were front page news in Rio at the time. We are left to assume the locals routinely shoot each other. What the film conveniently omits to mention is that these gunfights were front page because police were executing innocent people along with drug dealers.
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