• Zoe Phillips

"Dance Academy: The Comeback"

Movie, premiered 2017.

Quarantine Curtain Call: The future is always unknown, but right now it’s distinctly hard to think about. Cancelled shows and closed studios make it increasingly more difficult to envision our way out, but do not let ballet’s delicate nature fool you — she is a sturdy and stubborn art form, here for us in sickness as much as she is in health. Join me to twirl around some of the artifacts from her history and maybe we’ll discover something new about the present. 

As a guideline, movies borne out of television programs never feel destined for greatness. Accordingly, “Dance Academy: The Comeback,” an extension of the eponymous Australian children’s show “Dance Academy,” spends its days nestled in the forgotten corners of Netflix’s most esoteric search results. As a teenager, I watched all 65 episodes. I might have even watched them all twice — even so, it took me two years to realize they’d even made a movie at all. 

When the Netflix algorithm finally decided it was time to reveal the film’s existence, it was 2019 — seven years since the end of the show. I clicked play with only a few memories of the dramatic storylines that were spun into three seasons of drama regarding students at Australia’s fictional National Academy of Dance. I assumed I would enjoy the movie in the ironic, fascination-with-the-abomination kind of way that other people binge “The Bachelor” — except with less sexism. In actuality, it was good. It had heart and it was fun to watch. I watched it again only a few days later while sitting on the floor of my college dorm room with a friend and fellow fan of the show. Again, it was good. Sure, it was cheesy and relied heavily on bad montages and odd lens flares — but its faults eventually gave way to something that straddled a line between excellent and horrible, enjoyable and dumb. The result would probably pair well with a bottle of cheap wine, or maybe a hastily purchased box of chocolates. Never award-winning, always enjoyable to consume. 

“Dance Academy” the television series premiered in 2010, produced by Australia’s Werner Films Productions. The show started with protagonist Tara’s (Xenia Goodwin) audition for the National Academy of Dance. After three years of elite ballet training, the series finale ended with Tara's chance to be hired by the also fictional National Ballet Company. Along the way, she and her friends dealt with substantial helpings of first kisses, failed friendships, and an ongoing exploration of what it means to follow one’s dream. The show was, of course, not high in production value: Aimed at young teenagers, the plot did not shy away from overly simplified conclusions and an annoying lack of character development, especially for Tara. Even so, it also dealt with issues that most American shows aimed at similar audiences did not allow: a boy coming to terms with his sexuality, multiple depictions of eating disorders, and the untimely death of one of their friends. The final episode ended with the opening of a dance center dedicated to the lost friend, spearheaded by Tara who, in her final performance, slipped on a bead and broke her back. The injury ended her dance career. 

Enter “Dance Academy: The Comeback.” Loosely, the 2017 movie follows Tara trying to fight her way back into the ballet world. The journey takes her from Sydney to New York City, then to Texas, back to New York, and ends in Australia once more. The storyline is full of many of the same plot devices as the show: relationships plagued by bad communication, more health scares from various characters, and very over-dramatic portrayals of Tara’s anxiety regarding her back injury. Iconically melodramatic, the whole thing is mildly predictable. Still, the underlying theme of Tara’s comeback is more complex than the average teenage soap opera. Throughout, she struggles with multifaceted anger. Part of her is mad that she was never able to achieve her childhood ballerina dream, another part is not even sure that’s what she wants anymore. The division goes unexplored for most of the film, but it’s an important detail to notice — plus, her emotional repression probably makes it even more realistic. 

At the climax of her self-discovery, Tara yells to her friend Abigail (Dena Kaplan), “we’re all obsessed with proving that we’re good enough to do this thing that doesn’t even matter!” As the words leave her mouth, she is standing on a street corner outside the hospital after their friend was admitted for complicating his cancer recovery by continuing to dance. Abigail, the unsung star of the show’s emotional development, responds “you don’t think I don’t wish I’d get injured?” At the end of the TV series, Abigail was hired by the National Ballet Company and in the movie she is a member of the corps de ballet. “Everything hurts, every day,” she says. 

Like the rest of the movie, the scene is not Golden Globe-ready. Tara is still wearing her costume from a performance because, upon hearing news of her friend’s hospitalization, she ran through the streets of New York without even stopping to take off her pointe shoes (the subway was apparently also not an option). The scene was shot in slow motion and set to A Great Big World's 2014 ballad "Say Something I'm Giving Up on You." Hilariously dramatic, but nevertheless, the message holds good weight. It’s a perceptive exploration of a young dancer’s dedication. Ballet students start young and work hard. To land an elite professional contract, their goals must often be set before their age hits double digits. The dejection of both Tara and Abigail thus seems like a good check-in — are we doing what we want to do, or merely what we used to think we wanted to do? 

Often in dramas targeted at similarly young age groups, aspiring artists rebel against a dream imposed on them by their parents. Here, these characters wrestle with rebelling against themselves. The distinction doesn’t make the film automatically amazing, but it does give the work a new angle. At times the movie may be poorly edited, badly written, or even questionably acted — but these are not reasons to hate “Dance Academy: The Comeback.” The movie is still fun to watch. It’s full of dance. Hip hop classes fade into ballet lessons into audition sessions and contemporary performances. The dance world’s place on screen is often left up to the sole influence of “Black Swan” or maybe “Center Stage” and the occasional reference to “Breaking Pointe.” The “Dance Academy” movie’s cringe worthy mistakes are made up for in the fairly honest portrayal of its art form, and, by nature of its made-for-TV status, its ability to laugh at itself. Sometimes bad art is just as meaningful as good art. 

I recently crept back into Netflix’s dark corners to watch the “Dance Academy” movie once more. I streamed it on my five-inch phone screen on a quiet and otherwise uneventful night. As the plot points unfolded and the lens flares swished across my glasses, I thought about this idea of bad and good. In the years since “Dance Academy” aired, I’ve met dozens of fellow dancers and watched their eyes light up at the mention of the show. It operates almost as a hidden gem of performing artists, a bad show that gets whispered about in good conversations. In a world of unprecedented distance between both friends and strangers, we could probably all benefit from some more good conversations. Who cares about the production value of what sparks them?

Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!