Dance Academy: the movie review

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If there’s one thing firmly understood by the creative talents behind the new Dance Academy movie — based on the popular ABC teen drama series of the same name — it’s that the film’s audience will be almost entirely made up of fans of the TV series.

That’s true of most films spun-off from TV shows, but many of them go well out of their way to cater for new audiences, occasionally at the expense of the one they already have. Dance Academy is entirely for the fans.

It opens with our heroine Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin) sharing an excerpt of her work at a creative writing course. Tara was previously an extremely promising — if a little highly-strung and naive — ballet dancer until, in her third year of study at Sydney’s National Academy of Dance, she slipped during a performance and badly damaged her back.

The story she shares with her fellow writing students is the one of her time at the National Academy, but they’re quick to attack the story for its cliches and its overt sentimentalism. Does the world really need another story about young dancers following their dreams?

Surprisingly, Dance Academy manages to be quite a bit more than that.

“Tara Morice’s performance as the buttoned-up ballet mistress who finally opens her heart is a thrill for those who know what’s gone before.”

That opening sequence is wryly, knowingly funny and serves two purposes — it’s a short refresher for those who have forgotten about the series’ major plot points in the almost four years since it went off their air, but it’s also an acknowledgement of the series’ rather schlocky roots and an indication that the world of Dance Academy is growing up.

After that opening sequence, writer Samantha Strauss and director Jeffrey Walker waste no time trying to draw connections for audiences unfamiliar with the series. There are relationships which we’re meant to already understand, and plot points and sustained visual themes that continue on seamlessly from the series.

The movie follows Tara’s attempts to return to the form and make it as a professional ballet dancer, 18 months after her injury stopped her from dancing. We know she was on the path to greatness during her school days, and she has an open invitation from the National Ballet to re-audition, but how much can she really achieve after 18 months away from dance? And what will professional success mean for the legal battle she’s currently locked in with the National Academy, over her life-altering injury?

Many of Tara’s friends from the series, including Kat (Alicia Banit), Abigail (Dena Kaplan), Christian (Jordan Rodrigues) and Ben (Thomas Lacey), are dealing with their own life’s crossroads, navigating through early adulthood.

The visual and acting style is a fair bit more sophisticated than the small-screen version of Dance Academy. Walker draws inspiration from all sorts of contemporary dance movies, but shoots the dance sequences in a way which manages to open up the internal worlds of the dancers.

But despite these stylistic advancements, the characters are mostly the same young people they were in the series.

Thankfully, the film has a satisfying and cohesive narrative arc, and never feels like a bunch of episodes stitched together. And although it certainly has moments of “a-ha!” recognition for fans — and Tara Morice’s performance as the buttoned-up ballet mistress who finally opens her heart is a thrill for those who know what’s gone before — it feels very much like a natural and necessary extension of series, rather than an exercise in nostalgia.

“Has there ever been a dance movie made for young people quite so cynical about the lives of professional dancers?”

All throughout the Dance Academy series there were hints that life as a professional dancer mightn’t be all it’s cracked up to be. The show ended with several characters stepping away from that dream, having found other passions.

The movie takes that exploration even further — it’s full of shots of dancers looking unhappy, tending to their injuries, tired and pushed almost to breaking point by a torturous work schedule.

Has there ever been a dance movie made for young people quite so cynical about the lives of professional dancers? Even Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 thriller Black Swan manages to romanticise that world while showing the psychological warfare that can exist within it. While Black Swan suggests it’s all worth it, Dance Academy isn’t so sure.

But Dance Academy serves as a reminder that dance, and any competitive, professional obsession, can easily distort our perspectives on our lives and personal relationships. The Dance Academy series was always more about the friendships between young people than the ultra-competitive world of professional dance, and that continues well into the film.

But the hints of disillusionment with professional dance which came through the cracks of the TV series are now right at the surface.

Dance Academy is in cinemas from April 6

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