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The battle to become a professional ballerina is tough enough for a middle-class European girl. For [Isabella] Coracy, it often feels like an insurmountable challenge. “These are not one-night wonders,” Finzi says. “This is not The X Factor.”  Dom Philips and Sarah Maslin Nir reporting on “Only When I Dance” for The Times

While we wait for biopic Mao’s Last Dancer to hit UK screens and for Carlos Acosta’s own No Way Home to be filmed, documentary Only When I Dance (Vida Ballet), screened at the Barbican’s Brazilian Film Festival last October, provides a  present-day look at the challenges faced by impoverished aspiring young dancers, this time in the context of escaping the harsh environment of the Brazilian favelas.

Having missed it on the big screen due to the Mayerling madness which hit The Ballet Bag for several weeks in the autumn I was glad for the opportunity to catch this gripping, poignant tale on UK TV (Channel 4) during the Christmas holidays. Only When I Dance follows two Brazilian ballet students, Irlan dos Santos Silva and Isabella Coracy. Both hail from favelas in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, definitely not your usual ballet dancer breeding ground. Thanks to scholarships and the foresight of headteacher Mariza Estrella (who won the “OUTSTANDING TEACHER AWARD” at Youth America Grand Prix in 2008) they are students in the same school where Royal Ballet Principal dancer Thiago Soares trained.

For the perfectly proportioned Irlan, one of the school’s most remarkable students, dreams of a professional career in ballet do not seem unattainable: as long as he passes school exams and continues to work hard, the chips might fall in the right places, especially if he manages to win a Prix de Lausanne scholarship. Of course nothing ever comes easy in the world of ballet but Irlan’s road seems much less bumpy than hard-working Isabella’s. Black, curvy and extremely graceful yet-no-virtuoso, her odds of securing a contract with a major ballet company are less favourable and she is well aware of this. While Irlan appears more confident about future options, she timidly says to the camera that her dream is “to perhaps dance in a classical ballet company”.

Director Beadie Finzi’s initial idea was to follow Irlan’s story exclusively but she was persuaded by Ms. Estrella that Isabella’s tale would make for an interesting contrast. This clever headteacher probably saw a chance to raise awareness to Isabella’s plight, a cause which seems very dear to her heart. During discussions and counselling with the Coracy family we see a realistic and yet encouraging Ms. Estrella as she hopes to see Isabella fight back and overcome professional obstacles. We also see Isabella’s supportive family struggle to arrange funds so that she can travel to YAGP where she hopes to win an award. From tears and the threat of injury to hope and back to tears, her story is what really makes the movie such an honest, riveting tale of holding on to your dreams. As her father Toti says “victory comes easy for those born rich, but the rest of us have to fight”.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

It is heartwarming to see Irlan achieve his dream of trading the dangerous grounds of the favela for a “better and calmer place” but a pity that the movie focuses so much of its final moments on his success (he is hired by ABT2) while neglecting to dwell on what might become of Isabella. Thanks to this article from The Times we discover she has secured a contract with a well known local ballet company and that she too is about to make her dreams come true.

Only When I Dance elsewhere on the web:

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