For an art form that had faced a steadily declining audience attendance over the years, ballet has nonetheless managed to maintain interest from filmmakers and film audiences, with cult classics such as Centre Stage and Aronofsky’s Black Swan coming to mind. Kenneth Elvebakk’s Norwegian documentary Ballet Boys follows the lives of three ballet dancers in Oslo: Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød, Syvert Lorenz Garcia and Torgeir Lund, through puberty and through their experiences as aspiring male ballet dancers. It is evident from the title alone that Elvebakk is attempting to break away from the narrative of ballet as a feminine art form while also moving away from the familiar space of professional ballet companies to amateurs. While these are commendable deviations from the common focal points of ballet films and documentaries, Elvebakk’s piece falls short in developing the lives of these characters and is ultimately a hyperdramatisation of puberty and the ballet world that is held up simply by the honesty and likeability of its leads.
Over the course of the film we see the growth of these Boyz-2-Men as their personalities, demeanor and physicality change in the span of 20 minutes, a feat reminiscent in a very small way of Linklater’s Boyhood. The timeline covered by the film is unstructured, lacking the typical markers of age that demarcate the passage of time. This causes the narration to become messy, particularly as the boy’s voices change and break; we become unaware of who’s talking and because of this, their insights come off as gossipy and meaningless. Where the documentary is particularly disappointing is in purporting to follow the lives of three boys, when really the only fully developed character in the film is Lukas. It feels as if the thrust of the film relies on your investment in Lukas’ success and emotional world, however the film then deviates to skim across the lives of Sygert and Torgeir in a perfunctory way that makes them feel like screenfillers. Elvebakk was evidently concerned with providing diversity and scope in his investigation of youth and ballet but is unable to juggle the content, ultimately reducing Sygert and Torgeir to secondary, two-dimensional characters. This feels true in the characterisation of Sygert as nothing more than career-focussed and envious where his character obviously has a great deal of depth – especially in the expectations of his family and in his self-perceived outsider status as a Norwegian of Asian heritage (it is not said what nationality). Rather than engaging with this multi-faceted individual, the director reduces him yet again to the status of outsider in a film that claims to equally explore the “thrills, spills, tears and joys” of each of these boys. The third boy Torgeir is all together absent from this film, to the point where I can’t even guess at what has been neglected because little to nothing was revealed about him in the first place. While I do believe Lukas is the most compelling individual of the three boys, and would have held the film on his own, this partiality towards this character also feels like the result of a neglectful director who paid the most attention to successful trajectories in ballet rather than the potentially more interesting realm of failures, uncertainty and difficult decisions. In this, the film falls short of other recent ballet documentaries such as First Position that manages to limit its scope to a single competition and age group but then is able to represent a depth and diversity that was lacking in this film.
Unfortunately the aesthetic and visuals of the film do little to help – at times you feel as if you were watching an episode of So You Think You Can Dance, complete with flashing edits, dramatic lighting and bad music. This is clear in the first 5 minutes of the film that introduce each boy against a black background in a flood of light accompanied by a short clip of them at home. The director evidently included this to introduce the subjects of the film and create a reference point for their change, however the effect of this opening sequence is only to reinforce the director’s lazy characterisation of these boys while also implicitly suggesting how much but ultimately how little people change. Lukas is introduced as a hard-working, dedicated dancer, Sygert as torn between family, school and ballet and Torgeir as grounded but indifferent, and this early characterisation of the three boys is ultimately used to lay out a narrative that is digestible and conventional rather than organic. The dance sequences of the boys using bad Instagram-like filters and unnecessarily dramatised sets and lighting are an unwelcome addition and detract from the moments of candid conversation at school and at home. The inclusion of a bad electronic music soundtrack signals an attempt to move away from the representations and perceptions of ballet as classical and out-dated, but results in discordant and uncomfortable musical pairings.
However what is refreshing about the film is in the exploration of ballet in a context outside of the ballet stalwarts of France, Russia and the U.S. Similarly, it was refreshing to exit the professional stage and to focus on a period of change and transition rather than merely the practice of ballet exclusively within childhood or adulthood. I can recognise the aims and goals of this film but the final product indicates that Elvebakk was overwhelmed by the scope of the film and instead relies on obvious conventions and characterisations that limit the film. That being said, somehow the film manages to be engaging because it is fascinating to see subjects that aren’t performing to the camera and are simply navigating a stressful period of time and change that we are all familiar with, albeit perhaps without the stresses of ballet specifically. The film underestimates its audience by feeling as if it had to be a recognisable ‘dance film’ complete with theatrical dance sequences and dramatised social situations, which detracts from the compelling film subjects and scenario that had the potential to renew the tired conventions of dance films with the earnesty and vulnerability of the dancers themselves.