April 29, 2012

You're Meant To Dance And Cry

Dance Academy will fool you. As the series begins it seems like something cheesy and soapy and inconsequential. An incessant voice over that's treacly as often as not leads you to believe that the series will focus entirely on the many embarrassments of a country girl trying to make it in the big city, and her struggles as the worst dancer at the prestigious National Dance Academy. It tricks you into thinking that it's small. 

It is not small. One by one seeds are planted with no apparent rush to amp up the drama or speed through the story. Seeds that, before you know it, grow and blossom into stories that have been done before but are rarely treated with the level of sensitivity and grace that they're treated with on Dance Academy

Eating disorders, teenage rebellion, fist love, coming out, triumph over adversity - these are stories that are well-worn on TV, especially in shows that focus on the lives of teenagers. We've all seen them played for laughs or shock value. We've seen them rushed through and overblown. We've seen them done well and we've seen them done badly. We've come to expect them all. What I didn't expect was the delicacy with which they handled every aspect of every trope they trotted out. 

Each story had ample time to develop at a natural pace over multiple episodes. The writing never tried to outsmart itself or the audience and it never tried to be clever. It gave the characters room to breathe and grow in their moments without asking them to behave or speak in a way that would require the viewer to suspend disbelief. When one girl struggles with feelings of inadequacy, some of her classmates try to help. Some say the right thing, others don't. Nothing anyone says fixes her, she has to fix herself. When a student wrestles with a realization that he may be gay, he has a hard time accepting himself and settling into the new reality of his life but he has friends who give him the time to figure things out without insisting he define himself. 

The actors never seem to be forcing emotion out of themselves or the story. When someone cries, I believe that they are crying because they're overcome with emotion and not because the script called for it. The plot rarely requires the actors to make fools of themselves in service of delivering a flashier story and in turn, the actors never fail to give the story punch with their quiet, thoughtful, honest performances. Even those who were clearly cast more for their dancing than for their acting have, by the second season, risen to the occasion and settled comfortably into a rhythm of acting instead of over-acting. 

And make no mistake, the kids on this show were cast in part because they could dance. The dancing is as important to the story as anything and they've clearly taken great pains to make sure that the audience can see them dance. No tricky edits or tight closeups of only feet and faces. We can see these actors dancing in wide shots in every episode. The actors are doing the work. 

Every character is interesting in his or her own way and everyone adds something to the story - from the core group of Tara, Kat, Abigail, Sammy, Christian and Ethan, to second season additions Ben and Grace, and the secondary cast of Miss Raine and the parents. It's only a half hour show so lingering shots of contemplative faces are used sparingly and they move from one plot to another economically while never feeling choppy. The direction doesn't get fancy, just unobtrusive and seamless and the pacing is brisk but never rushed which results in 24 minute episodes that feel neither too short, nor too long. 

I keep trying to pinpoint the exact moment that Dance Academy went from being a show I enjoyed somewhat ironically, to being an excellent show that I loved on its merits. Was it the second season? The coming out? Sammy and Abigail's relationship? But it wasn't one moment. It was the way the show did all the small things; the way it hinted at something rather than coming right out with it; the way it cared enough to subvert your expectations without waving your expectations in your face first; the way it embraced subtlety even while sticking with a voice over that bordered on the obvious. I don't think the show was ever small. I think it was just carefully laying the foundation for the exquisite show it was always meant to be and I deeply admire not just what they built but how they built it. 

I spent a lot of time on Twitter this week comparing Dance Academy and its characters to other shows - Australian Pacey, Australian Maureen, Australian Dawson. It's a lot of fun to find the similarities between a new favorite show and those that have come before but the truth is, this show is something unique unto itself. Someday I'll watch another show and dub someone the American Sammy or the American Kat because these characters are more than just the Down Under versions of great characters who've come before. They're important, interesting, wonderful characters all their own. And I love every one of them. 

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