Year Released: 2009
Distributor: Film Movement
Running Time: 78 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: OT: Our Town, Ballet Boys, The Children of Theatre Street, Tutu Much, First Position
-Mariza Estrella, the founder of the Centro de Danca Rio organization is a retired ballerina herself and she made this dance company back in 1973.
-Isabella Coracy is currently performing at the UK-based Ballet Black organization while Irlan Santos de Silva is at the Boston Ballet. To keep this spoiler-free, both of them got those positions long after Only When I Dance was filmed.
-Only When I Dance is the first feature film directed by British documentarian Beadie Finzi and her second directorial work after The Rough Guide to Choreography. She’s also a co-founder of Doc Society (FKA BRITDOC). One might recognize that company name on Iridium Eye since I reviewed two of their previous films where they did production work in Black Gold and Big Boys Gone Bananas!*.
Well, here’s yet another documentary involving a subject I’d never thought I would watch, but this just comes with the territory. I’ve tackled various subjects as one can tell. Reviewing Beatrice was an eye-opening glimpse into wheelchair fencing, for example. There was also Beyond the Ropes which dealt with Northern Ireland’s indie pro wrestling scene. I have also covered Big Boys Gone Bananas!* which I greatly enjoyed as it chronicled a filmmaker’s legal battles against censorship. However, I didn’t expect to watch and review a documentary that involved something I can care less about…ballet. I’m dead serious. This forced me to get out of my comfort zone in so many ways even though I’ve covered movies that are more controversial and/or contain graphic content. As a reviewer, I need to go outside what I would normally watch.
Here goes nothing as I review this British/Brazilian documentary.
Only When I Dance documents the lives of two dancers from the most impoverished parts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There’s Irlan Santos de Silva and Isabela Coracy, who are both Black high school seniors who engage in ballet. Both of them practice at the Centro de Danca Rio under the tutelage of Mariza Estrella. Irlan and Isabela compete at various competitions in the country, and both of them win one contest in Sao Paolo. However, money becomes an issue (more so for Isabela) since this allows them to go to New York for a bigger competition. Irlan was able to compete in Switzerland as well since he got first place in his division while Isabela works very hard to be taken seriously despite her innate talent.
I have seen a few ballet or dance productions before while I wasn’t into that art, but after watching this film, I’m not going to underestimate anyone in that art form. Irlan and Isabela are very talented at what they do and I’m not going to crap on them for their prowess. Both of them also want to use ballet to help their families get out of their impoverished backgrounds and live better lives. It was also interesting seeing their families being very supportive emotionally and financially. Both families work overtime just to make sure their dancers can make it. Seeing Irlan’s dad was a fascinating contrast. He certainly comes off as a macho guy who wouldn’t even dream of going to some ballet show, but he considers himself his son’s number one fan and has Irlan’s name tattooed on his arm. Talk about breaking masculine stereotypes here. I also didn’t realize how cutthroat the ballet competitions could be. There are so many finalists that can pass just so the competitors can get profitable scholarships and jobs at a ballet company. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but it was almost like a sport with how they compete. There’s certainly athleticism and practicing involved which I couldn’t deny.
The production values were quite good. One can see Rio and its dichotomous nature on full display and with vibrant colors. The slums and the rich neighborhoods are shown in full detail. The other locales are covered in some beauty such as Lucerne, Switzerland, and New York City. It was quite impressive how most of the things were filmed. Okay, there were a couple of instances of aliasing, but they were very few and far between. The filmmakers did a great job throughout the film.
Only When I Dance did have some missteps that I couldn’t ignore. The tone is overly optimistic despite the real-life drama and events. It comes across as more of a feel-good movie. I also thought that Irlan got a little too much focus in the film. I do get part of it since he goes to Switzerland to take part in a different competition, but I would’ve liked the focus to be more equivalent between him and Isabela. There are some implications that came off as really forced. They emphasized the ethnicity of the dancers so much in the beginning especially Isabela since she’s obviously darker-skinned. There are good points about how there aren’t many Black ballerinas much less anyone that’s a POC, but this uncomfortable truth is overemphasized. Another implication involving the race of the dancers would be Irlan’s desire to dance and his presentations. He could easily be seen as a feminized Black guy which will make him “safe” to a Caucasian audience which was an unintentional tone set. During the Switzerland competition, he dons an outfit where he looks like a very suspect Black Brazilian version of Aladdin (yes, the Disney version) and has a noticeable amount of guyliner on. I hate to repeat one of my points from I Am Not Your Negro, but this bears repeating here. Imagine how people would respond if this were a White guy on display dressed up like that and doing ballet. There would be outrage and I’m sure even the guys from Queer Eye (either incarnation) would think “Wow, that looks too gay for us.” at some parts of Irlan’s performances.
One major issue I had was with Mariza, especially with her interactions with Isabela. Mariza is certainly well-meaning, but she comes off as self-righteous as she intentionally finds potential dancers from the slums while she’s living in one of the richest areas in Rio. She overemphasizes the financial and racial situation of the two featured students. I’m not sure if Mariza is a light-skinned Latina (or Parda if we want to be technical in Portuguese) or a White Brazilian, but I got this vibe of her believing that she can save any Black Brazilian which could be compliant with the White Savior effect. The one thing that really made me irate was her calling Isabela overweight. Isabela sobs on camera after hearing this (and who can blame her?), but it infuriated me because she’s CLEARLY NOT OVERWEIGHT! Sure, she may not be some ninety-pound prima donna, but she’s not even close to being considered chubby. Shame on Mariza and anyone else who thought she needed to drop weight. If you Google any pictures of Isabela and think she’s fat, yet you wouldn’t dare criticize Amy Schumer’s figure, then you’re a freaking hypocrite. That really rubbed me the wrong way, and I just had to talk about it.
Only When I Dance was a good documentary even though I wasn’t expecting all that much. The production values are certainly impressive. The world of ballet became very interesting and this is coming from someone who’s apathetic at best to that art form. I did want Irlan and Isabela to succeed and for their families to have better lives. However, I couldn’t shake some of the visual implications, overemphasis on race like it was the only thing it mattered with the dancers and Mariza’s borderline Messiah Complex. Only When I Dance did surprise me in so many ways despite my beneath-the-floor expectations.
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you like ballet or classical forms of dancing.
Subtract 2-4 points if you think dancing is lame.
-Good production values
-Irlan and Isabela are likable in their attempts to do ballet
-The Nijinsky performance by Irlan
-Mariza’s self-congratulating behavior
-Racial implications with effeminate behavior or how Black ballerinas aren’t good enough
-Isabela getting body-shamed
Final Score: 7/10 points
Content Warning: Only When I Dance is pretty safe to watch more or less. The only objectionable aspects are some language (even though one part gets very strong) and some of the outfits can be on the skimpy side.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Only When I Dance is property of Film Movement. The poster is from iTunes and is property of Film Movement.