Students at Milan’s prestigious Accademia Teatro alla Scala, affiliated with the eminent La Scala theater, are observed through the school year in “Opening Act,” a docu full of small visual pleasures and aural delights. While helmers Massimo Donati and Alessandro Leone privilege dance and voice students rather than their stated aim of encompassing all the Academy’s disciplines, their loving, unobtrusive yet immersive portrait of the pupils’ impassioned exertions has built-in appeal for a highbrow clientele. Clocking in far shorter than Frederick Wiseman’s “La Danse,” the pic, also known as “Offstage” (the exact translation), is a shoe-in for culture channels.
While the concept isn’t exactly new, the directors’ balancing of struggle with camaraderie makes for a refreshing change from the more common “Black Swan”-like exultation in physical torment and backstabbing. Not that they ignore the pain among the dance students, but it’s not fetishized, and whether romantic or not, it’s nice to see ballet shoes treated as catalysts of dreams rather than instruments of torture. What makes “Opening Act” special is the way it encompasses hard work and idealism — cognizant of, but not beholden to, the heartache that often goes into the beauty of creation.
At the start the camera visits the different worlds within the school’s walls, from the ballet bar to hairdressers’ workshops, costume ateliers, makeup laboratories and set-design studios. There are even shots of janitors and kitchen staff, leading viewers to assume the docu will present a full picture covering all the activities; presumably such an approach proved too time-consuming, and while the directors occasionally check in with the dress designers, their focus is largely on the dancers and singers (had they been able to balance it all, the docu would have been a real standout).
Among the ballet students, Fabio Sonzogni becomes almost a mascot, probably thanks to his unlikely roots as a farm boy near Bergamo, seen winnowing hay at home during spring break. There’s also Jacopo Maria Giarda, warned by the school’s sympathetic physical therapist that an ankle injury will take him out of “The Nutcracker” and possibly “Nineteen Mantras” (he’s sufficiently healed to dance in the latter). Voice students tend to be more international, ranging from Korean to Georgian to Brazilian; the latter, Ludmilla Bauerfeldt, is shown taking lessons in the famed singers’ retirement home founded by Giuseppe Verdi, the subject of “Tosca’s Kiss.”
As to be expected, there’s a fair number of stern yet supportive teachers, as well as enchanting snippets of performances. A sequence in the warehouses of La Scala feels like something out of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, and an evening performance in front of Milan’s Cathedral is pure magic. Only two scenes were staged: one with the younger ballet pupils excitedly dashing about the corridors and boxes of the theater, and another of three students performing on a balcony. Though clearly done for the camera, their inclusion adds a touch of enchantment. Similarly, a marvelous moment with the kids tossing buckets of water down on their classmates remind viewers that whatever their talents, these are still children, blessedly doing childish things.
Daniele Azzola’s camera alternates between a position of non-interference, allowing for full-figure dance numbers, and strategic placement in the midst of the performers, capturing the quivering excitement and sweat of the students during their final presentations before the teachers. Sound quality during the vocal classes can seem a bit distant, but nothing that will overly perturb music lovers.