Documentary explores ballet aspirations in Rio's Zona Norte

I recently saw the documentary Only When I Dance, released in 2009. What's special about the film is its novel subject matter: working class Carioca teens aspiring to the ballet stages of Europe and America.

I chatted with a renowned ballet scholar a few days ago and "learned" from him that Brazil doesn't really produce any fine arts. If only to address such ignorance, I hope the film finds its audience.

The bad news is that the film features some merely good dancing and less-than-inspired filmaking. The two dancers we learn about are likable enough, but we don't get to know them very deeply. The most fun the main protagonist, Irlan, gets to have on camera is his first experience of snowflakes. Why are we supposed to care about the subjects? Because they are poor? Dark skinned? Brazilian? More memorable documentaries succeed because they focus intensely on individuals rather than general concepts.

Instead of taking the time to get under the subjects' skin we learn about the expense of international ballet competition, the self-satisfaction of their mentor, and the stress the dancers' aspirations cause for their parents.

It's not hard to find other flaws. The film doesn't have anything to say about the superb dance traditions native to Brazil; all we see is a few seconds of canned forró music when the parents of the protagonist have a night out. It avoids Brazilian cliches like bikinis on the beach, soccer, and carnaval but falls instead into a much more boring formula: the "Hoop Dreams" documentary template without any real imagination, powerful cinematography, or the originality of the basketball documentary.

So who should watch this film? Anyone unfamiliar with the cultural diversity of modern Brazil might learn a thing or two about the realities of urban life there today. Aspiring documentary filmmakers might want to see it as a cautionary tale: running after your subject with a handheld shot does not imbue your film with energy, only dizziness.

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