Ballet Boys is quite the antithesis of everything we’ve come to expect from a ballet documentary. No one is collapsing under the pressure of competition, mired in self doubt or tormented by the last vestiges of body fat. There is very little real dancing shown and two out of three of its stars are far from convinced they want to be dancers at all. What Kenneth Elvebakk’s affectionate snapshot offers instead is the clumsy tangle of kinetic energy, mockery and generosity unique to teenage friendship, as three boys dedicate their precious after school hours to their love of dance and the tentative promise of a future career.
In poignant contrast with the experience of ballet girls, Syvert, Torgeir and Lucas carry with them the knowledge that boys are special in this rarefied world. They choose it, with little doubt that it will choose them too. They train with equal dedication but are markedly different in their approach to the craft. Lukas is the most atypical ballet star and shows his potential from the outset but elevation from corps to a chance at the world stage will cost him the camaraderie and safety net of his life in Norway. As all three strive for a place at the National Academy of Arts, in Oslo, he is faced with a dilemma. Is it better to remain the best among his peers or to reach further and potentially be the lesser talent among a crowd of strangers?
Torgeir has been touched by all three banes of teenaged existence – acne, inarticulacy and awkwardness. And yet through dance he is transformed. The choreographers’ skills lend him a physical vocabulary he does not stumble over and the rigours of training rack his self conscious spine straight. More essential for his growth though is the time spent with his friends. Each boy cites the raucous moments in the changing room before class as the highlight of their day. The changing room becomes a metaphor for their broader ballet journey as ambition and age alters the dynamic between the trio and the inevitable stride towards adulthood cleaves them apart.
Syvert finds the transition from ballet as after school activity to a potential life after school, tough. The young Asian-Norwegian he struggles with issues of identity early in the film – a thread that is left frustratingly unexplored – and worries about the toll class will take on his real world friendships. All three share a high school teacher who has a brusquely pragmatic approach to the romantic world of dance. Pushing the boys to consider where they will be when injury and age steal their careers away. Lukas’s focus is unswerving but Syvert and Torgeir are better able to consider another life, offstage. Syvert walks away from ballet early in the shoot but feels compelled to return and it is he who most evolves. Despite Ballet Boys’ devotion to the more textbook story of Lukas, it is Syvert who provokes our sympathy and smiles.
With the benefit of sparse but exceptionally striking dance footage (the film was shot on Sony HD FS100 and RED cameras) Ballet Boys fully immerses its audience in the boys’ lives. The result is delightful. More a bittersweet exploration of ambition and friendship than a straightforward ballet documentary, the genuine affection between the leads and of the filmmaker for his subjects shines through every intimate frame. David Kinsella’s compelling A Beautiful Tragedy (2008) – following fledgling ballerina Oksana Skorik through Perm State Ballet School – left viewers impressed but downcast. What a difference a change of gender and location makes. Ballet Boys runs 20 minutes longer and remains joyous throughout. The lack of technical dance sequences or heavy personal revelations will irk some but we are not shortchanged.
In place of high drama and high jumps we are offered love and tenderness. The love Lukas has for his singularly cool and supportive family, the tenderness with which the boys support and taunt one another and the unabiding love for ballet which unites leads and storyteller. It throws up conflicting emotions to see that love flourish unchecked by the burdens female dancers bear and the gentle pacing does leave room to ponder the imbalance. Perhaps it was the part-time nature of their training that allowed the three to remain so carefree. Perspective from one of their duet partners would have offered interesting context. Let us hope another chapter of the Ballet Boys story will provide a reply.