Monday, August 25, 2014

'Ballet Boys' (2014) directed by Kenneth Elvebakk

The Killers once asked “are we human or are we dancer?”  Kenneth Elvebakk's Ballet Boys answers by demonstrating that you can be one or the other – but not both.  His documentary, following three Norwegian boys with hopes of being professional ballet dancers, shows the determination, skill and good luck needed to succeed in a cut-throat world that demands perfection.

Our three young Baryshnikovs are Torgier, Syvert and Lukas, all of whom range in talent and motivation.  Lukas looks as if he's been genetically bred for dance success, all boy band blue eyes and confident grace.  He's  Terminator-like in his determination to make it as a ballet dancer, and skilled to the point that he outshines everyone in the film.  His superhuman skill is impressive, but makes him a bit unrelatable - the heart of the film lies with Syvert and Torgeir (but mainly Syvert).

In an early scene Syvert bemoans his East Asian ethnicity, explaining that he wishes he was white Norwegian.  Right away we recognise that he's nursing an inferiority complex next to the easy-going Torgier and dance commando Lukas.  There's a meaty psychological paradox at play in a boy who considers himself innately 'out of place' trying to climb the peaks of physical and mental perfection: transforming his body into a direct tool for artistic expression.

Torgeir is a different kettle of fish, though what kind of fish is anyone's guess. He's the Collins to Lukas and Syvert's Armstrong and Aldrin.  Mainly he's an amiable sort of guy, floating around in the background of scenes cracking jokes and stretching.  Though we peer into Syvert and Lukas' home lives, Torgeir remains an unknown quantity, a victim, I suspect, of  brief run time.

At a mere 72 minutes Elvebakk's film mirrors the bodies of its subjects; lean, pacey and with zero percent fat.  On one hand I appreciate brevity in cinema, optimistically treating it as a sign of a confident, concise director.  On the other how much justice can a documentary do to his subjects and the art of ballet in such a short amount of time?

Unfortunately this is more the latter than the former.  Ballet Boys bears more than a passing resemblance to Steve James' 1994 classic Hoop Dreams.  Both follow boys with big ambitions; one set to become professional ballet dancers, the other to compete in the NBA. Both show the emotional and physical toll it takes on the subjects, exacerbated by the weight of ambition and the knowledge that only a tiny minority ever make it.  Hoop Dreams follows just two boys, is nearly three hours long and is about as comprehensive a study you could feasibly get of its subject.  By comparison Ballet Boys barely skims the surface.

Another flaw is that other than the knowledge that they want to turn professional, Elvebakk never lays out the milestones they need to achieve to do it.  We jump haphazardly from auditions to audition with little idea of the stakes.  Late in the film we learn, almost as a postscript, that Lukas triumphed over nearly 1200 other applicants to get a place in a top ballet school, a fact that would have immeasurably upped the tension of the preceding scenes.

Also absent is any explanation of why they started dancing in the first place.  We meet them in the middle of their training and while some attention is paid to why they want to continue, we've got no idea how they began.  Ballet Boys recognises that being a teenage male ballet enthusiast is somewhat peculiar, so knowing what initially attracted these very different boys to this world would add a splodge of character to proceedings.

But the worst consequence of the short run time is that we don't get to see the boys properly  dance.  Sure, we get a few jauntily edited clips of them doing the odd move to a dubstep beat (presumably intended to show that ballet's hip, cool and with it yeah?) and a few seconds here and there from various contests, but I was craving a couple of unbroken minutes of footage demonstrating what each of these boys can do.  

Presumably the potential audience for a ballet documentary must, at minimum, enjoy watching people dance, so why the need to chop up their moves into MTV inflected quick cuts? This robs us of that Billy Elliot moment when we finally understand why they're pushing themselves so hard in pursuit of a distant aesthetic goal.

It's a pity because there's a lot of potential in these boy's stories.  I found myself craving more and more information as the film went on; what were their parent's reactions to their child deciding to go pro-dancer?  What do their non-ballet friends think of the whole affair? What, exactly do they want to achieve if they do make it?  All of this goes answered.  What's left is anorexic, as if Elvebakk doesn't think this subject and these boys are going to hold our attention.

The film has its moments – nearly all of them arising from the casual camaraderie between these three remarkable young men.  We sense the bond forged between them and they succeed in making us care about their success: we want to see them achieve their dreams. To the film's credit it does go some way to outlining the downsides to ballet; a destroyed body and retirement by the age of 40; the sacrifice of a 'normal' social life in favour of intensive training; the simple risk of a random career ending injury. 

These moments of illumination raise Ballet Boys from the humdrum, but it's just too slight to give us any real insight into the weird, high-stakes world of ballet.


Ballet Boys is released September 12th.

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