The passion and pain of a dream
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