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Q&A with director Kenneth Elvebakk of Ballet Boys

By Neil Dowling on October 17, 2015

Among the films on show at this year’s Ottawa International Film Festival Kenneth Elvebakk’s Ballet Boys is one that immediately catches the eye. The film which follows three boys who work towards making their dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer a reality has already racked up a long list of awards and nominations around the world. We caught up with director Kenneth Elvebakk to discuss the film.

Apt613: Ballet doesn’t seem to have the same appeal for boys as it does for girls, how did you meet these boys who became the subject of your film?

Kenneth Elvebakk: It’s true that there’s a perception among some people that ballet is a feminine activity reserved for women and gay men. The ballet boys meet some of the same prejudices. I wanted to make a film showing how tough it is for boys to become professional dancers and to show that ballet is not about gender or sexual orientation, but talent, hard work, the support of friends and family, and the struggle to find your own expression and identity as a dancer. In Oslo I found a small group of boys, who also were good friends and went to the same school. They had the same dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, but they faced very different challenges.

Apt613: It seems like the main theme of the film is friendship. To what extent were the boys in competition with each other, and how does their friendship come under strain due to this as they progress?

KE: The thing is that the boys almost didn’t have a life outside the ballet school. They spend their spare time on dancing and with each other. Much of their life goes on inside the opera house and especially in the locker room. They don’t have time for parties and they spend almost all their time on practicing ballet, or at school. There was competition between the boys, but in a good way. They inspired each other and encouraged each other. The three boys had a very good friendship. And I think many people can learn a lot from watching this film. It is a strict life and I found it really fascinating to go into this strict world with my camera. It became natural to focus on the friendship between the boys and to tell their story from a boy’s perspective. It could have been football. It could have been boxing. But I found it more interesting to go into the ballet world.

Apt613: What was it about ballet that captured your attention?

KE: What is so special with ballet is that they need to reach a very high level at a very young age to succeed internationally and to get a job. To succeed you need to find your own identity as a dancer. If you are going to do this every day you really need to love what you are doing. There must be a burning ballet heart inside you.

Apt613:Could you tell me a little about your background and if you have any connection to the theater or in dance in addition to your work as a film maker.

KE: For the last 15 years I have worked as a freelance filmmaker, mostly with documentaries. I have my education from the University of Oslo, the Norwegian School of Management and Oslo Film and TV. I have worked 5 years for NRK, Norway’s national braodcaster, both in TV and Radio. I have directed several documentaries and TV-series. I have never danced myself, but I always loved to watch dance performances.

Apt613: You followed the boys progress for a few years, right? Was this always the plan and if so how did you have the patience to take on a project that you wouldn’t see completed for such a long time?

KE: I decided to follow the boys for three years just to see if they could manage to enter The Norwegian Ballet Academy at Oslo National Academy of the Arts. Then Lukas got an invitation to dance the last audition at The London Ballet School. This was an exciting moment and I could not let it pass without filming it.

Apt613: It seems like pursuing a career in ballet puts a lot of demands on the kids. How did you feel while making the film and seeing the boys under so much pressure?

KE: I like to imagine Ballet Boys as a fairytale – a dream that really can come true for Lukas, Syvert and Torgeir. They missed a lot, but they got other things. I think they put the strongest demand on themselves, especially Syvert. His parents ask him to spend more time on doing his homework at school. But he really loved doing ballet. He stopped for a while, but I am happy that he decided to go on with ballet. Lukas was more dedicated. He found something inside himself very early and he decided to just go for it. In the film, you get the impression that Lukas is the one becoming the new ballet star. But Syvert is at least as good as Lukas. Syvert was one of the finalists in the Prix de Lausanne 2015. That is a great achievement for a young dancer.

Apt613: Have the boys been successful and made a career from ballet?

KE: Today Lukas is dancing at The Royal Ballet in London. Syvert is dancing at Houston Ballet in Texas. Torgeir decided to stop doing ballet, but he got his bachelor’s degree in classical ballet.

Apt613: I’m also interested in the Oslo Opera House building. Having lived there I really feel that the building is a hugely important addition to the city. How important a part of the film was the building for you?

KE: Ballet Boys goes deep inside the opera building and into The Norwegian National Ballet School. I let people see things they’ve never seen as a regular ballet audience. However, this new opera house in Oslo provides a wonderful environment for all the people who work there and for all who visit it. It’s a magical building. To see more of the opera house in Oslo, I would recommend a film by Margreth Olin from Cathederals of Culture. Olin was the first producer on Ballet Boys. I had to change Production Company because she had too much to do on her own films. I’m very much inspired by documentaries by Olin. She focuses on moments that go straight to the core of the experience of being a child or youth. Her approach brings me very close to the characters’ emotional challenges.

Apt613: Do you think the arrival of this iconic building in the country has made ballet more fashionable or cool for young people in Norway? And do you think your film has helped to encourage a wider interest among boys in taking part in ballet?

KE: I am very happy if my films can make a change in someone’s life and inspire people to think outside the box. It was also important for me to make a good youth film, not only a ballet film. Ballet Boys has changed people’s attitudes towards boys doing ballet in Norway. There are more boys coming to the ballet schools after the film was screened on national TV in Norway. Even boys who play football can recognize the same challenges as the boys in the film. They see how hard Lukas, Syvert and Torgeir have to train to become really good, and they even love girls! The new opera house is among the most visited places in Norway. It is very popular and all performances are sold out. The building is the city’s diamond.

View the trailer below:

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbtcsHyKBQE[/youtube]

Ballet Boys screens on October 18, 2015 at 11am at the Cineplex Theatre, Lansdowne Park. For more info, click here.