Only When I Dance

Impressively directed, emotionally engaging documentary that plays like a real life Brazilian version of Billy Elliot.

What’s it all about?
Directed by Beadie Finzi, Only When I Dance follows Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy Alves Nascimento Santos, two teenagers from rough, working-class Brazilian neighbourhoods who attend the Centro de Dance Rio ballet school on scholarships. Both students have become the proteges of the school’s founder, Mariza Estrella, who enters them in international competitions, hoping they will be spotted by ballet company talent scouts.

The Good
As with most competition-based documentaries, Only When I Laugh manages to be both heart-warming and heartbreaking at the same time. Irlan is extraordinarily talented and his modern performance piece at the prestigious Prix de Lausanne competition (miming Nijinsky’s descent into madness) is astonishing, even if you know nothing at all about ballet.

However, Isabela isn’t as naturally gifted as Irlan and has to work much harder as a result. On top of that, her devoted family put themselves into debt trying to come up with the money to send her to a competition in New York, whilst she also faces criticism of her weight (despite looking no bigger than any of her classmates) as well as an uphill struggle generally, because she’s black and Brazilian ballet companies apparently won’t hire black ballerinas.

The Great
The film also devotes a lot of time to Mariza, who emerges as a real character and provides a welcome note of humour at times. By contrast, the final shot of Mariza, eating her lunch alone in her office, is surprisingly moving.

As well as including sequences of both exhilaration and despair, Finzi also finds time for some delightful smaller moments, such as Irlan’s reaction at seeing snow for the first time. On top of this, the film spends a large amount of time with both Irlan’s and Isabela’s family; this pays an unexpectedly poignant dividend at the end of the film when Irlan leaves home and the house is suddenly empty, bringing home the powerfully emotional cost of helping your child achieve their dream.

Worth seeing?
Only When I Dance is a well-made, emotionally engaging documentary that you don’t have to be a fan of ballet to enjoy. Highly recommended and well worth seeking out.

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