‘Only When I Dance’ – yet another DVD review

23 Feb

From one end of the Earth to another, my next DVD of choice was Only When I Dance, a documentary featuring two young dancers from Brazil, Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy, pursuing the dream of becoming professional ballet dancers.  The film, directed by Beadie Finzi markets itself as an inspiring coming-of-age story where the two dancers overcome adverse conditions like growing up in the violent favelas of Rio de Janeiro and for Isabela in particular, racial challenges as a black ballerina.  The blurb on the back of the DVD even goes as far to say that this is a feel-good documentary…but I must’ve missed something because while the future is quite rosy for Irlan, it remains uncertain for Isabela, who I felt got slightly less attention in the film.  Given, Irlan is that rare gem of a dancer you know will go on to great things and has far more illustrious achievements during the filming period but I don’t feel that makes Isabela’s career path in dance less important or less interesting.  Quite frankly, it seems a little counterproductive to make this type of documentary but then tip the scales in favor of the star dancer and then to call it “feel-good” undermines the difficulties Isabela faced.  I feel for her—but I’m not sure I liked the way she was used in the film.  Her presence in the documentary was warranted because she had an equally interesting story to Irlan’s and not because she was a black girl who happened to dance at the same studio as him, a character to flesh out Irlan’s story.

Maybe I’m in a mood or something because that sounded awfully scathing coming from me, but I can’t help but feel an injustice when I watched Isabela’s dream to dance in a major ballet company crumble and then read on the back cover that this is supposed to be a “feel-good” documentary!  A great stink is made about her weight throughout, and it’s clearly something that distresses her greatly.  Talking about dieting brought her to tears and after a visible weight loss by the Youth America Grand Prix, her teacher again told her that Isabela’s weight was an issue for the judging panel (Isabela was not selected to move on to the finals of the YAGP).  A visit to the doctor even revealed a skin condition that developed out of emotional stress.  She is perhaps unrefined, which is hardly uncommon for someone her age but I saw a lovely girl and a beautiful dancer.  Her family took out loans to be able to afford her trip to New York and it was just heartbreaking to see what is in my opinion a ridiculous “issue” become the deciding factor in Isabela’s career.  Where was the discussion on her technique?  Her teacher Mariza admires her artistry, and while I felt like she lacked some spark in the YAGP, the poor thing was probably starved and exhausted!  It was hard to watch, and knowing that her family could still be in debt over it is difficult to know.

Irlan is the golden boy, which you find out in mere seconds just by his genetic gifts and watching him move.  Somewhat reserved, but with a coy charm, he has quite the presence for such a young man.  Like Isabela, they both come from impoverished conditions but with loving homes and seeing Irlan’s father smile when he talks about how watching his son dance changed the way he thought of ballet warms the heart.  Irlan achieves the pinnacle of success for a dancer of his age by winning an apprenticeship at the highly prestigious Prix de Lausanne and we have our uplifting moment.  What I noticed throughout though was his austerity—he exhibits a lot of maturity for his age, having the desire to leave his neighborhood and bring his parents with him for a better life, which is quite the onus for a teenager!  He performed his contemporary variation, from John Neumeier’s Nijinsky with such conviction that you’d think he was old enough to have seen the Nijinsky himself.  It’s a happy ending this time as Irlan takes a scholarship at American Ballet Theater, which was only two or three years ago so I expect as he develops his voice as an artist and strengthens his technique even more, we will be hearing more about him soon enough!

Despite Irlan’s success, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness as a response to the film as a whole.  Rather than uplifted, the film procured strong reminders of how much ballet asks of these kids and others around the world.  They have to make life altering career choices at that turbulent age we call “adolescence,” and I say this as someone who went to college, got a degree, and a few years out is only beginning to get a sense of my place in life—that’s crazy!  I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be, and how in spite of the desire to dance, the reality is that for some aspirers, it never happens.  Dealing with not getting your dream job is a much different beast at seventeen or eighteen years old as opposed to anything over the age of twenty-two!  While it’s clear Irlan is just one of those people that has always had the maturity to realize his dreams, I find myself endlessly impressed with his attitude.  It’s not just the career choice itself, but moving away from his parents, his hometown, and practically everything he knew for a life in a foreign country is the epitome of courage.  Again…ballet asks so much of kids.

I forget who it was, but some journalist last year complained about American companies “importing” foreign dancers in favor of developing home-grown talent and you know what?  Chauvinism is outdated.  Ballet audiences give little thought to a dancer’s country of origin because we just want to see great dancing and it’s even been said that sometimes adversity produces greater artists because they have a sense of desperation others who may begin ballet as an extracurricular activity don’t.  When I think about how a kid like Irlan chooses to show our country his talents, I feel honored and far from wishing he was an American!  Whether foreign dancers are getting contracts or guesting with American companies, I feel like offering the opportunities is the least that can be done in this rapidly globalizing world which seems to exceed its own levels of globalization every second (and there are many damn good American dancers anyway!).  While there isn’t a great amount of dancing in this DVD, I recommend it not for the “uplifting” story but to offer some perspective on what dance really means to some people.

10 Responses to “‘Only When I Dance’ – yet another DVD review”

  1. robin (mahrobi) February 24, 2011 at 4:06 am #

    i have it on request from the library now– i can’t wait 🙂

    • youdancefunny February 24, 2011 at 10:23 am #

      Yay! Though there is no mention of any other Brazilian dancers if you know what I’m saying…

  2. MIkaila February 24, 2011 at 7:48 am #

    I agree with your take on the film… I was heartbroken over Isabela’s situation. It was more inspiring than feel good.

    Kind of interesting how, for these students, ballet was a ticket out of their home country and into increased opportunity… They basically lusted after the life of a (as we call it) “starving artist.”

    • youdancefunny February 24, 2011 at 10:22 am #

      Yeah, Isabela really had it rough and there were so many moments where it was even a little difficult to watch. To say that life is unfair would be an understatement!

  3. Fleegull February 24, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

    I read that Isabela was dancing with a classical dance company. She got into the company well after the documentary wrapped so that’s why her ending seems so abrupt and sad.

    I’ve seen Irlan dance with ABT II and he’s going to do great things.

    • youdancefunny February 25, 2011 at 9:13 am #

      That’s good to know! I’m happy for both Irlan and Isabela.

  4. Jo Fletcher March 30, 2011 at 2:34 am #

    I thought you might have been a little harsh in the beginning of youre review, but on reflection I think you’re spot on. It’s not feel good.

    I also think sometimes the US can be a little inward looking especially when it comes to foriegn dancers I think they are a great asset.

    • youdancefunny April 7, 2011 at 8:31 pm #

      Very much agreed…chauvinism never interests me (not even during the Olympics!). Though I also found out that the truth is the documentary was originally only intended to follow Irlan, and it was by the insistence of the teacher that Isabella was included as well. That teacher is amazing!

  5. Terez Mertes May 25, 2013 at 9:01 am #

    Really enjoyed reading this review. I just discovered this documentary last night, courtesy of Netflix (and was stunned to discover it came 3 years before the more-hyped FIRST POSITION) and I am in complete agreement with you on your review. Well done. Boy, you have tons of well-done stuff here on your blog. I’m a dance blogger as well, at The Classical Girl, and I’m going to add you to my blog roll. Keep up the great writing, and can’t wait to read more of your stuff!

  6. Angela June 1, 2013 at 10:31 pm #

    I just watched it as well. I appreciate your take on this. Thank you and you now have a new follower.

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