When we first join them, Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød, Syvert Lorenz Garcia and Torgeir Lund are three promising 14-year old boys at the Norwegian National Ballet School in Oslo who are thinking of a career in dance. Kenneth Elvebakk’s sensitively judged and beautifully shot film follows them over the next four years, in class and competition, but mostly talking and being the teenagers they are.
“Ballet Boys” is not a film about ballet. Rather it’s a film about three boys growing up in the world of ballet. It’s hard not to make comparisons with David Kinsella’s incredibly compelling 2008 documentary, “A Beautiful Tragedy”, that followed Oksana Skorik through the Perm State Ballet School, and particularly “Just Ballet”, Stephanus Domanig’s 2012 film about a small class of similar aged girls at the Vienna State Ballet School.
Ballet-lovers will enjoy the dance scenes, but the dance footage is sparse. Don’t expect lots of footage of them performing or even in class. Like Domanig, Elvebakk focuses on the pains, anxieties and uncertainties of growing up; and the young people’s disappointments and victories, and hopes and fears, rather than the artform itself.
There are plenty of insightful comments. Early on, one of the three observes that pain is a huge part of a career in dance and that you can ruin your body. Still, as ever the optimist Torgeir says, “Everything’s possible if you want it enough.” They muse on dancing with girls and talk about their nerves at partnering for the first time. They find it exciting and scary in equal measure. Syvert says, “To be on stage with the girl you like is good and bad. You get to be with the girl you like, but if you mess up she’ll remember it forever.”
Syvert is actually the most interesting of the three. As an Asian-Norwegian, he struggles with personal identity and touches on racial tensions. It’s difficult to get a girlfriend, he says. At one point he wishes he were white Norwegian. Like many other youngsters caught between two worlds, he also struggles with his academic work. For a while he drifts away from dance, even quitting completely for a while, only to return a few months later.
The film does give a good idea of what it’s like for boys aiming at a dance career. Yes, we see them in the studio, but there are also plenty of shots of them working on strength, doing press-ups and the like. For all the fun, hard work and sweat is never far away. And then there are the things ballet makes them miss out on, such as hanging out with their non-dancing school friends. There are times when training is a “real bummer,” says one.
But these are teenagers and just like teenagers everywhere there’s plenty of youthful naivety, acting the fool and messing. The changing rooms become a sort of sanctuary. This is where we can be ourselves, where no-one can overhear us, they say.
Worries for the future are never that far away, though. The question, “What will you do if you don’t dance?” hovers over much of the film. “What is your Plan B?”, a teacher at their regular secondary school asks each in turn. Like most kids of their age, it’s something that they haven’t really considered, but it’s a question that comes sharply into focus as they have to audition for entry to the next stage of their dance education.
The film climaxes with Lukas’s unexpected acceptance into the Royal Ballet School’s Upper School. He never had any intention of applying to study there, but they invited him to the final audition. He gets in, but a time for celebration is mixed with the all too real being pulled between wanting to take the place, and what effect it will have on his family and friends. He goes, but it’s a move that leads to the cracking of the trio’s relationship.
There are one or two sad reflections at the boys’ bittersweet parting (the other two continue their studies at the Oslo National Academy of Arts), but in reality it happens with little more than a shrug. Although Lukas says he sees them when he goes home in school holidays, you sense that the bonds have been irrevocably weakened, maybe even broken for good.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that “Ballet Boys” touches on a lot of issues, some definitely worthy of looking at in greater depth. But to some extent that would be to miss the point. “Ballet Boys” comes at its subject from the teenage male viewpoint. Yes, it’s light and easy-going, but it’s also refreshing and realistic, and increasingly draws you in to the extent that you really care about what happens to them by the end.
Director: Kenneth Elvebakk
Available on DVD and Blu-Ray (UK): November 10, 2014