Only When I Dance

Only When I Dance (2009)

Only When I Dance first published by S&S, Feb 2010

Review: As 17-year-old Irlan Santos da Silva stretches into a perfect arabesque on a rooftop, the camera circles to set the teenager both in and above his background – namely the vast favela of Complexo do Alemão in the northern zone of Rio de Janeiro, dubbed ‘the Gaza Strip of Brazil’ for its violence. This is the image that opens Only When I Dance, directed by Beadie Finzi (producer of Unknown White Male, director of The Hunger Season) – and it encapsulates both the humble origins and high hopes of an adolescent whose best chance of being lifted out of poverty rests in his talent for dance. 

Only When I Dance is in part defined by what it is not. Despite the favela setting of the scenes with Irlan and his family, and the need of the film’s crew to pay for protection while filming there, this is hardly another exposé of slumland criminality in the tradition of City of God (2002) or Elite Squad (2007). Here drug-dealers and gunfire are kept out of sight, while the focus remains instead upon the promise of individuals and the possibilities afforded by what Irlan’s father Irenildo calls “a straight life”. Irenildo is also shown near the start declaring himself to be his son’s “number one fan”, thus dismantling from the very outset any expectation that this film will follow the Oedipal trajectory of that other film about an underprivileged boy with a passion for ballet, Billy Elliott (2000). 

While Irlan’s run of successes in various international competitions (a run that in fact had already begun several years before filming commenced) leads him eventually to win a scholarship with the American Ballet Theatre in New York City, the irresistible arc of his ascent against all odds, familiar from any number of sporting ‘underdog’ films, is piquantly offset by the not quite parallel story of his classmate at the Centro de Dança Rio, Isabela Coracy. Both Isabela and Irlan are on scholarships to attend Mariza Estrella’s dance school, but Irlan’s first prize in a national competition ensures that his expenses are covered to attend the next leg of the competition in New York, whereas Isabela’s family must struggle and sacrifice to pay for her flight and accommodation, adding to the already considerable pressures on the girl to succeed. It is a high-stakes gamble on a dream, and while Isabela is certainly talented, her black skin effectively excludes her from becoming a ballerina in Brazil, while her body shape and weight do not quite conform to the rigorous standards demanded abroad, so that in the end her number does not come up. 

Together, Irlan’s and Isabel’s stories trace out the clashes of class, race and gender that constitute their social milieu – and from which only one will escape. In an image that echoes the film’s opening while mapping out the distance travelled in the meantime, Irlan is last seen stretching and dancing on another rooftop, this time with the New York high rise visible in the background. He may be on top of the world, but Finzi is also careful to document the more qualified joy of Irlan’s parents left behind, and to show us Isabela, back at the Centro de Dança, her future far less certain than Irlan’s even as she herself teaches another, younger girl all the right moves.

Synopsis: Beadie Finzi’s documentary follows a year in the lives of Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy, two Rio de Janeiro teenagers, as they struggle to transcend their underprivileged backgrounds through ballet. Irlan wins prizes and attention everywhere he goes – at a Brazilian regional contest, at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, and finally at the America Grand Prix – while Isabela and her family make great sacrifices to get her to a New York competition that her body weight precludes her from winning. Ballet school director Mariza Estrello guides the one through his success and the other through her relative failure.  

strap: Beadie Finzi’s Brazil-set documentary explores clashes of class, race and gender through two young ballet aspirants

Anton Bitel