Beadie Finzi’s docu “Only When I Dance” follows two teenagers from rough, working-class Brazilian neighborhoods who aspire to the heights of ballet. Yet, ironically, the aesthetic power of Finzi’s lensing and the unquestioned support of the kids’ families is such that the impoverished, violence-ridden favelas of Rio serve merely as colorful backdrops to the dancers’ training. Pic’s real tension lies, rather, in the international competitions that can make or break careers. This finely crafted film’s vision of economic determinism constitutes a welcome contribution to the current bumper crop of docus en pointe and could follow their lead into arthouses.
Isabela and Irlan attend the Centro de Dance Rio on scholarships, both proteges of its founder, Mariza Estrella. But despite their similar backgrounds and Finzi’s evenhanded approach, the two differ in far more than in gender.
Irlan, at 18, is already possessed of enormous talent that guarantees his way will be paid wherever he appears. Isabela, 17, though a lovely dancer, lacks the genius of her compatriot, and her figure is fuller than the classical norm. Moreover, darker-skinned than Irlan, she is considered black, and must therefore distinguish herself in foreign venues, since no Brazilian ballet troupe will hire her. Isabela instead pins her hopes on the Youth America Grand Prix in New York, her entire extended family going into debt to meet her expenses.
Despite lyrical long shots of Isabela joyously pirouetting alone in an empty theater or glimpses of her spirited solo and ensemble performances before the judges, much of Finzi’s coverage of Isabela revolves around her and her family’s struggles with crucial but peripheral questions of appearance and money.
With Irlan, however, from the opening shots of him stretching and whirling atop a building, his arms extended over the whole of the city, Finzi seeks to film him in motion. Invited to contend in the prestigious Prix de Lausanne, Irlan is shown leaping bare-chested across a stage or ambitiously rehearsing and performing a demanding modern piece that mimes Russian dancer Nijinsky’s descent into madness.
Tech credits are impressive. Helmer-lenser Finzi, mainly known as the producer of “Unknown White Male,” here reveals a striking compositional sense that interrelates the players with their surroundings onstage or in slums with equal grace.