BLACK STILL HAS TO GET BACK
by William Gooch
published May 22, 2009
Only When I Dance
premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival
“Only when I dance, do I
feel like a bird … like I’m flying,” says Irlan Silva. With his buoyant leaps and elegant carriage, Irlan Silva does indeed conjure up images
of a majestic bird in flight. But like the mythic Icarus, Irlan and Isabela Coracy’s terspsichorean ascent is impeded by human
Beadie Finzi’s documentary Only When I Dance, details the lives of two ballet dancers
(Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy) from the impoverished favelas of
Rio de Janeiro who have aspirations of performing on the world’s concert stages. Both have studied on scholarship at Maria Estella’s Centro de
Danca Rio—one of the most respected ballet academies in Brazil—and have reached the time in their training where they most compete for spots in
prestigious, international ballet schools.
Only When I Dance takes a
totally different approach in examining the behind-the-footlights stories of aspiring dancers. This is the first documentary of its kind that
gives an in-depth look at how the issues of race and class permeate the elitist world of classical ballet. Documentaries about the now-defunct
Dance Theatre of Harlem have given insight into how race is a factor for dancers of African ancestry, but never has class inequality
compounded by issues of racial identity been so uniquely expounded on in a film of this kind. And yet, Only When I Dance is about more than ballet exclusiveness, it is about the struggle of two ballet students
and their families’ quest to go beyond the limitations of their circumstances.
Only When I Dance also gives insight into the rarefied world of ballet competitions, an Olympic-style dance phenomenon, where dancers compete for access to training and
apprenticeships at elite ballet academies and companies. Beata Finzi brilliantly details Isabela’s family’s protracted struggle to raise
travel expenses for her inclusion in the New York Grand Prix Competition, shattering the
notion that poor people are not as engaged in the career aspirations of
their children as families of means.
Finzi paints an interesting portrait of Maritza Estrella, a woman who is conflicted about protecting the international reputation
of her school while facilitating training to poor kids of color. In Brazil, poverty and race and so socially intertwined that advocates of
the poor are sometimes regarded as crossing racial and poverty barriers better left uncrossed. It is evident that, even though Irlan and
Isabela are both of African descent, because he is mixed race, Irlan is more accepted in the Brazilian dance community than
In spite of poverty and race discrimination, these dancers’ commitment and passion for dance will not be squelched. And when Irlan
performs the beautiful ménage from Le Corsaire, he is not only dancing and leaping for himself,
he is showing every dancer of color that the impossible is possible.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read the panel discussion with director Beadie Finzi and dancer Irlan Silva