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Only When I Dance ***

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Only When I Dance

Press notes describe Only When I Dance as an uplifting documentary, set against the well established image of the inherently violent and starkly deprived Rio Favelas. That isn’t quite accurate. We follow two teenagers from Complexo do Alemao, only one of whose dreams get a chance to flourish. The quietly determined Isabela and confident, colourful Irlan both aspire to high-flying careers in ballet. An odd choice, it would seem, for kids coming from one of the toughest areas of Brazil. It would be unfair to claim that both face great obstacles to success, since in the shallow world of classical dance, only first place counts, and Irlan has the talent and the looks to secure prize wins, full financial backing and the devoted attention of his trainer. Whereas Isabela – who suffers all the (sometimes desperately) cruel turns of fate, whose family place their hopes and financial destiny on her delicate shoulders, and who through ignorance and miscommunication is made to feel overweight and inadequate – Isabela, with neither the expected figure or track record, cannot afford to fail, financially or emotionally. She faces an uphill struggle from the start, as a black girl in a country where the colour of her skin will make it impossible to secure tenure with a dance company.

It is sometimes hard to watch Irlan, admittedly charming, charismatic and a beautiful dancer, receive everything on a platter; and then witness the pain Isabela goes through. The only hope offered comes in the form of a final shot, suggesting her trainer may help her move into teaching dance. And again, contrary to the press notes, I think the film shows this trouble extending into the home. It’s hard to speak for Irlan’s family, but the sort of pride and unconditional love shown to Isabela comes across as slightly unhealthy. This issue aside, the subject and its depiction by Beadie Finzi (also director of the Channel 4 Britdoc Documentary Foundation) is touching and measured.

What really makes it so compelling, though, is the dancing. I love films about other arts. Films about painting are, to me, so much better at capturing any essence there may be to the artwork than independent study in a gallery, undirected. And so it is with dance. I left with an insatiable urge to see Irlan in the flesh, performing something like the spectacular modern piece he executes for his competition performance at Lausanne. This, at least, is a great reason to see Only When I Dance.


Only When I Dance, Dir. Beadie Finzi, Mus. Stephen Hilton, Tigerlily Films, Brazil, 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

05/12/2009 at 09:57

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