“Ballet Boys” documents the tough road for young men to succeed in dance

Ballet Boys from Norway
by Larry Murray

New from First Run Features is the film Ballet Boys which touched me deeply.

I spent several years of my long art career working with E. Virginia Williams who founded the Boston Ballet, and helping her company find and train the young men who did all the heavy lifting in classics like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Carmina Burana. “E” trusted me and my judgement and on a vacation trip to Italy asked me if I could look in on a dancer she had heard good things about, and to ask him if he would be interested in relocating to Boston. I did, he was, and the next season he joined the company. I was brought up believing in the Eddie Villella and Ted Shawn schools of ballet, which confronted American disdain for men dancers with hyper-masculinity.

Today their focus on the athleticism of men dancers is everywhere to be seen. We see them lifting their partners above their heads as if they were feathers, or performing a dramatic series of grand jeté (split leaps) which is still one of the most dramatic and show stopping moments in a dance performance. Great dancers must also have both the tenacity and stamina to keep all this demanding choreography going for 2-3 hours during the course of a major ballet. What you see on stage may be a smiling dancer spinning out dozens of fouettés – choreographers are not shy about putting 32 of them in a row in a single dance sequence. But if you are lucky enough to be standing in the wings during a performance, you will witness dancers leave the stage and double over gasping for air. They make it look easy, but looks deceive. If you have been close enough to witness marathon runners hitting the finish line after 26 miles and 385 yards you know what I mean.

Yet, for all of that, most Americans think ballet is for sissies, which of course is partly unconscious homophobia (men are supposed to be clumsy but strong) and partly ingrained cultural ignorance. When I was with the Boston Ballet we created classes for boys in their teens that did not require them to wear tights – another obstacle to recruiting from the neighborhood – but to take class and lessons in simple jeans and a tee shirt. Once there, the boys quickly discovered that ballet school was also where even the shyest boy would be coaxed out of their insecurity and soon be surrounded by dozens of friends of both sexes. The girls always outnumber the boys, and this, combined with the discipline of ballet, improved everyones social life.

It’s not just our country that is hung up on male ballet dancers. In Europe the situation is similar, as anyone who has seen the film or musical Billy Elliot can attest. The clip below shows how lowest-common-denominator television media portrays dance, as if it is not possible for men to love ballet. Yet its challenge focuses on one of dance’s most popular movements, the one that always gets applause. Though it doesn’t note that the male is performing a simple Fouetté while the female is doing the far more complex Fouetté en tournant, (French: “whipped turning”) you are now clued in. That’s the reason she performs fewer. Watch as she makes a preparatory turn in place on one leg, then bends the knee of the supporting leg and extends the working leg out straight to the side (second position, en l’air). The dancer then brings the working leg in so that the toe touches the knee of the supporting leg for the turn. Meanwhile, the men execute it on the ball of the foot (demi-pointe) while the women perform it on toe (pointe).

PS, you may notice that all ballet terms are in French, a habit that developed ages ago when ballet was centered in France, and the teachers in other countries maintained that language so students could take class in any country and still know which steps were required without having to learn another language.

Contrast this with the moving Norwegian documentary (with English subtitles) of Ballet Boys, a film by Kenneth Elvebakk which had its exclusive Premiere on iTunes: October 6 and will be available on DVD October 13. It’s a wonderful story running 72 minutes, and has seven bonus shorts to boot.

The documentary follows four years of struggles, set-backs and accomplishments of three friends who all hope to become future dance stars: Lukas, Syvert, and Torgeir.

The boys sacrifice a normal high school experience for the sake of ambition and a love of dance. Facing pressure from their parents, school teachers and ballet mentors, they prepare for potentially life-altering and career-making auditions at some of Europe’s most prestigious ballet schools in Norway, and for Lucas, at the School of the Royal Ballet in London. For that he has to break away from his two best friends, his supportive and helpful family, and everything he has grown up knowing.

There are several wonderful things about this documentary directed by Kenneth Elvebakk. The first is the cinematography that remembers not to cut off limbs and to leave space for lifts and jumps, which amateur photographers think nothing of cropping.

The Ballet Boys story is authentic, not manipulated, and thus lets its tension happen naturally. As a result Ballet Boys is a beautifully executed piece that really underscores how ballet has nothing to do with the boundaries of gender or sexual orientation. Lukas, Syvert and Torgeir each develop different paths into an art form dominated by tremendous challenges of rigorous physical training. Little by little they learn how to deliver the expressiveness that is possible to transmit through disciplined movement.

Boy to man: Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød reaches 18 years of age while at the Royal Ballet.

Boy to man: Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød reaches 18 years of age while at the Royal Ballet.

Filming began in 2012 and followed its subjects over several years. You can see their growing maturity as the film unwinds. By the end of the film you come to feel you know Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød, Syvert Lorenz Garcia and Torgeir Lund. We follow the trio as they first learn their art and prepare to audition for the Oslo National Academy of Fine Arts ballet school. As with most teenagers that age, the boys are good friends, and Elvebakk captures with natural sincerity their lives which are typical of any other teenager in the world but which, in this case, also encompasses their close connection to ballet.

As the documentary comes to an end, we see Syvert and Torgeir visiting their pal at the Royal Ballet, and with other members of the Norwegian company, sit in on Lukas taking one of the school’s rigorous classes, including his many corrections. The look on their faces seemed to telegraph both jealously and regret, yet as the film ends, all three are upbeat about their future.

In dance, a career can end quickly with an injury, or falter with bad habits undermining otherwise superb performances, or physical development that does not result in the right physicality. Tall bodies, small heads and breasts are the ideal for women while strong, toned but not overly muscular bodies (Pilates style) the ideal for men. And as we see in this film ballet is not just for white boys and girls, it is multicultural (the Cubans still turn out a hell of a lot of great dancers) and most audiences have gotten over the shock of a black woman in a white tutu.

In the end, it’s the dance that counts on stage.

—Also of Interest—

A film by Nel Shelby
53 minutes, documentary, color, English, 2015

DVD packaged in certified Green Forestry eco pack

Another release that deserves your attention is PS Dance! from Nel Shelby. It goes more deeply into the art of teaching dance to students as part of their education. This film takes us inside the halls of five NYC public schools and celebrate dance! Hosted by veteran TV journalist Paula Zahn, PS DANCE! captures what happens when students have dance in their curriculum. The journey is one of imagination, curiosity, hard work and discipline. In this documentary illustrates, dance is for every child.

One thought on ““Ballet Boys” documents the tough road for young men to succeed in dance

  1. I had no idea that the Boston Ballet did not require boys to wear tights in effort to recruit them from local neighborhoods. I think that this is a brilliant idea to help boys become comfortable with the idea of pursuing dance. The media often gives male dancers a negative image but allowing boys to wear whatever they are comfortable wearing seems like a great idea to break down barriers to entry.

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