The pas­sion and pain of a dream

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

OK, I’m just go­ing to say this right at the start: Dance Academy, a fea­ture film se­quel to the suc­cess­ful Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion se­ries, is bet­ter than La La Land. Now that may seem like an ex­trav­a­gant plie (I looked up the words for bal­let move­ments af­ter see­ing this movie) and peo­ple will dis­agree with me. Even Faye Du­n­away thought La La Land should have won a best pic­ture Os­car.

I liked the Emma Stone-Ryan Gosling song and dance ro­mance-drama, but for me Dance Academy feels more real. It has some­thing about it that is more dra­matic, more emo­tional, more com­plex, which is sur­pris­ing for a movie aimed at the teens and young adults who loved the Lo­gie-win­ning, Emmy-nom­i­nated TV show, which ran for three sea­sons from 2010 to 2013.

Set 18 months af­ter the fi­nal TV episode, the film ex­plores the early adult lives of the wouldbe bal­let dancers, who are now not teens but in their early 20s. Some, such as Abi­gail (dancer, singer and ac­tress Dena Ka­plan), re­alised their teen dream and are mem­bers of the Syd­ney­based Na­tional Academy of Dance. Others are more foot­loose.

The ac­tion opens with a bal­let at the Syd­ney Opera House. We see the su­per-tal­ented dancer Tara (a bril­liant Xe­nia Good­win). But as the scene widens we re­alise she is watch­ing the per­for­mance on a TV screen. She is at the Opera House, yes, but work­ing as a wait­ress. “Re­mem­ber we are feed­ing old rich peo­ple, not bal­let dancers,’’ her ad­mon­ish­ing boss re­minds her.

Tara, who could have been “the best dancer of her gen­er­a­tion”, broke her back af­ter slip­ping on a bead dur­ing a per­for­mance of Stravin­sky’s Perse­phone. Not for noth­ing does that bal­let in­clude Hades. She has re­cov­ered but her danc­ing days seem to be over. She is su­ing the academy for dam­ages. Her lawyer thinks she will win and re­ceive at least a mil­lion.

But we know how Tara feels. The first scene shows her in a cre­ative-writ­ing class, read­ing a story she’s been work­ing on. “All I see is a blank page and a gi­ant ques­tion mark,’’ her fic­tional self says. “Who am I? Who is any­one with­out a dream?” And so the prima bal­le­rina of a ques­tion is es­tab­lished. Can Tara make a come­back or is her dream dead? This is the reg­u­lar sto­ry­line of lots of dance movies, but that doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make it weak or cliched, and cer­tainly it un­folds here with pas­sion, nu­ance, in­tel­li­gence and even sur­prise.

The crew from the TV se­ries re­turns. It’s the sec­ond fea­ture (af­ter the ro­man­tic com­edy Ali’s Wed­ding) for di­rec­tor Jef­frey Walker, who has an im­pres­sive tele­vi­sion CV that in­cludes Neigh­bours, Blue Heel­ers, Home and Away, the Jack Ir­ish se­ries and in the US, four episodes of the hit com­edy Mod­ern Fam­ily. Sa­man­tha Strauss con­tin­ued as scriptwriter. The re­sult is a tight, hon­est, mov­ing drama that vi­brates with the op­ti­mism and un­cer­tainty of be­ing young. There is no soap opera here.

The cam­er­a­work (Martin McGrath) re­veals the real and imag­ined lives of the dancers. The pure phys­i­cal­ity of danc­ing is ap­par­ent in un­ex­pected mo­ments, such as a be­hind-the-scenes shot of the dancers who have just come off stage. They are gasp­ing for breath. They need to go back on stage soon. I don’t think I’ve seen a dance film that made me re­alise how hard it is. And that’s just the phys­i­cal side. The emo­tional stress is also there, es­pe­cially in in­no­va­tive scenes where Tara re­mem­bers her ac­ci­dent.

There’s a sen­su­al­ity too, though well within the PG rat­ing. And per­haps this is one area where the rat­ing ren­ders the char­ac­ters a bit un­real. No one swears, no one has sex (that we see). There is a brief, hu­mor­ous mo­ment in­volv­ing a celebrity, a top­less selfie and Twit­ter. I don’t mind such ab­sences, but I sup­pose most 20-some­things do drop both the F-word and their pants now and then.

Most of the orig­i­nal cast is back. Tara’s boyfriend Chris­tian (Jor­dan Ro­drigues) is teach­ing mod­ern dance to kids.

The gor­geous Kat (a bold yet sub­tle Ali­cia Banit) is in New York, star­ring in a chil­dren’s TV show that has seen her climb the lad­der to “C-list celebrity”. Her pent­house apart­ment is nice. She’s hang­ing out with an Amer­i­can muso, Xavier (Nic West­away, who does the ac­cent well), who says he doesn’t want to be a mi­nor tal­ent but, in a clever line, “a Hemsworth”. He doesn’t say which of the three Aus­tralian ac­tor broth­ers he wants to be.

Ben (Thomas Lacey) is still deal­ing with an ill­ness that makes danc­ing life-threat­en­ing. Ol­lie (Keiy­nan Lons­dale) is also over­seas, put­ting him­self through cattle calls. Perse­phone be­comes im­por­tant to both of them, and to Tara, who finds an out­let for her lit­er­ary skills. The new head of the academy is Made­line Moncur (a chilly but not ice-cold Mi­randa Otto) and Tara Morice is back as Tara’s for­mer bal­let teacher Lucinda Raine. The ac­tion spreads from Syd­ney to New York, both full of life, and later to Texas. There are also jokes about the cities that are funny be­cause they are true, such as when Tara runs through Man­hat­tan in an elab­o­rate cos­tume and no one blinks. In­deed, a Spi­der-Man salutes her.

I don’t want to re­veal too much, as part of the thrill is watch­ing, wait­ing, won­der­ing as the dancers ex­pe­ri­ence the pain and pas­sion of their dream. “Ev­ery­thing hurts, every day,’’ Abi­gail says at one point. The classes, the au­di­tions, the per­for­mances all rip­ple with the fear of fail­ure.

This brings us to the deftest as­pect of Dance Academy. The real ques­tion is this: is the dream worth it? When a strug­gling Tara says she is “noth­ing” with­out dance, a friend says, “Choose some­thing else.’’ Chris­tian asks her, “You are hurt­ing your­self every day and I am just meant to let you?” When Tara com­plains that “I could do this vari­a­tion when I was 15” she soon meets a teen dancer who can do it. Is it pos­si­ble that Tara would be bet­ter off if she for­got her dreams? She has re­veal­ing con­ver­sa­tions on this with Kat, Abi­gail, Chris­tian and Miss Raine.

This theme evokes one of the great bal­let films, The Turn­ing Point (1977), with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Ban­croft. Bal­let has in­ter­ested a lot of film­mak­ers. It pirou­ettes with pol­i­tics in Bruce Beres­ford’s Mao’s Last Dancer and in White Nights, star­ring Mikhail Barysh­nikov, probes the psy­che in Black Swan (2010), with Natalie Port­man, and tack­les class and gen­der bi­ases in Billy El­liot. And of course be­ing torn by the urge to dance is cen­tral to the tragic 1948 Bri­tish clas­sic The Red Shoes, chore­ographed by Robert Help­mann. Aus­tralia’s Dance Academy de­serves its place at the barre.

Xe­nia Good­win in Dance Academy: The Movie, left, and in a scene with Jor­dan Ro­drigues, be­low

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