Kenneth Elvebakk’s visually polished documentary, Ballet Boys, chronicles the experiences of three teenage boys in Norway who have a passion for ballet. The fly-on-the-wall approach takes audiences behind the curtain of what it takes to succeed as a male ballet dancer, but unfortunately bypasses intriguing avenues of enquiry in favour of merely skimming the surface of what would be a rare, inside look at a relatively unseen aspect of the performing arts.
Ballet Boys follows Torgeir, Syvert and Lukas, three high school friends in Norway who also share an extra-curricular passion for ballet. As they approach graduation, they all must consider if ballet is something they want to pursue in the future and if so, how they will manage to balance dancing with their further education. Despite some initial reservations, all three decide that ballet is too much a part of their lives to give up completely, but only Lukas has the fiery determination to go all in and follow his dreams.
The film introduces us to these boys through their love of ballet, but also the way each of the boys struggle to make it a part of their lives. Lukas strives for excellence, Torgeir has trouble with his burgeoning puberty while committing to an art populated in the majority by girls, and Syvert does not see ballet in his future yet feels an irresistible pull toward it, despite his outward intentions. These boys may differ in personality and motivation, but create an almost unbreakable bond through their love and devotion to dance.
These intentions are put to the test as each of the boys must come to terms with how they will go forward after high school. The film briefly explores how ballet has affected their scholastic lives, with Syvert in particular having trouble balancing his love of dance with his academic achievements. Lukas also feels a push and pull between the love of his friends and the availability of ballet training in Norway against the unknown quantity that is the Royal Ballet School in London. To be accepted would mean a chance to study at one of the most prestigious dance academies in the world, but that will also lead to isolation from friends and family.
However, these trials and tribulations fall away when the boys take the stage. Their grace and skill, not to mention the power behind their performances is captured beautifully by Elvebakk’s high definition cameras. The footage of their rehearsals, where they struggle with moves and potential injuries is juxtaposed effectively against the final performances, really bringing to light the amount of hard work and dedication these boys put into something that is growing more important to them with each passing day.
Unfortunately, this is where the film is very content to leave things. Elvebakk establishes the main characters, gives us a brief overview of their personalities and a handful of the issues they face and then doesn’t push all that much further. There are multiple elements of ballet dancing and aspects of these boys’ lives that are left unexplored, despite so many tantalizing threads left dangling and questions unanswered. Of course, this is a creative decision by the filmmakers to focus on the bigger picture rather than linger on the finer details, possibly with an eye to sell the film to television, but this decision to merely spotlight rather than examine stops Ballet Boys from being vital viewing.
The rigours of training and the physical sacrifice of ballet dancers have been covered before in numerous ballet films and documentaries, so it is understandable that the filmmakers might eschew these elements to focus more on the specifics of being a male ballet dancer. Except, this documentary barely focus on these either – Syvert’s insecurities about being Asian-Norwegian, how boys who do ballet are accepted by their fellow non-dancing teenage peers, the expectations of male dancers against their more numerous female counterparts when it comes to their role in a production, questions of social or economic status and how this challenges these boys to follow their dreams. All of these narrative aspects are given short shrift or ignored completely. Even the amazingly shot dance sequences feel like they are cut disappointingly short.
The contradictions between the pain and the beauty of ballet make a fascinating subject for film. Many filmmakers have turned their lens to this beautiful but agonizing art to capture the grace, the tragedy and the human willingness to put oneself through physical torment to achieve a kind of transcendence. Ballet Boys has many opportunities in making a ballet film to explore these numerous themes and stories, but misses them almost entirely. It is polished and visually impressive, with some funny and insightful moments, but while the film is perfectly content to be a brief snapshot of a fascinating world (and with a 75 minute running time it is very brief), it does miss out on exploring the lives of male ballet dancers with the depth that perhaps this subject deserves.
A visually slick documentary, Ballet Boys takes steps toward being an insightful look at the lives of three young male ballet dancers, but unfortunately, it does not go far enough.