By Mikko Ojala
Ballet Boys is Kenneth Elvebakk’s documentary that follows three teenage Norwegian boys through disappointment, victories, forging of friendship, first loves, doubt, faith, growing apart from each other and finding their own way and own ambition, in short about being a teenager, all mixed with the beautiful expression of ballet. The film chronicles the experiences of the first formative years of the ballet careers of Lukas, Syver and Torgeir. They have to deal with pressure from parents and teachers as well as facing challenges in their first international ballet competitions in France and Sweden. To secure their career, succeeding in the audition for the Norwegian Ballet Academy, is of paramount importance. Out of the blue, Lukas is invited to the final audition at the Royal Ballet School in London, despite not having even applied. This is for him an opporturnity of a lifetime and raises his own ambitions and pressures for his ballet career. During the course of four years we see the boys become young men, friends and separate.
Documentaries have featured some very impressive scores over the years. Some of the most memorable entries from the last decade are Philip Glass’s Fog of War, Howard Shore’s The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), Danny Elfman’s Standard Operating Procedure and George Fenton’s scores for nature documentaries like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet. Henrik Skram’s work for Ballet Boys is perhaps of a smaller scale than these examples but clearly shows the musical gifts and compositional prowess of the Norwegian composer.
Ballet Boys has the art of dance in the central role but underneath it all pulses the score which accentuates the drama and exhilaration of dance, the challenges and the life experiences of these three young men at the cusp of their careers. Although the soundtrack album is brief, 11 tracks and barely under 25 minutes, it packs a memorable musical punch. Skram employs an orchestra of a moderate size for his score and paints the drama of these three young lives with varying levels swelling lyricism, vibrant energy and quiet thoughtful poignancy, all expressed in very modern sensibilities but with strong orchestral refinement.
The soundtrack blazes to life with ‘Grasse’, which calls attention with a sharp undulating solo violin line which is joined by swirling and pulsing ostinati, by no means a new invention at this point when it has been almost done to death in film scores of every kind, but the composer succeeds in wringing such wonderful energy and emotion from the busy writing of alternating ostinati lines, especially when the piece climbs to a joyous brass supported climax. An exhilarating piece and a wonderful way to open the album.
‘Opening’ creates a serene ruminative tone as it presents small snatches of the gentle main theme on celesta and harp in the midst of curtain opening swelling string and brass chords and establishes further the pulsing string ostinati as one of the score’s central elements. ‘Big Feelings’ is like its name swelling to powerful crescendo through repeating string figures and combined forces of the orchestra until half way through it introduces the main theme in its clearest guise, a gently rolling waltz that is here explored by the different parts of the string section in a question and answer counterpoint. ‘Plan B’ is like a nod to Thomas Newman’s brand of scoring where the piece grows from a ghostly reading of the main theme to a slowly paced fragmented reading of the waltz, notes wafting through a synthesized atmosphere, crafting a slightly resigned pensive mood. Very effective.
‘Future’ starts with a delightful lengthy meditation on the main waltz theme, piano, glockenspiel and harp giving it an air of innocence and hope combined with the reassuring tones of the string section. Later Skram shows great sense of pacing and orchestration when he passes slowly rising and falling breath-like chords from one section of the orchestra to the next to achieve a powerful resolution that is both thoughtful and poignant. ‘Play’ glitters with a simple cascading echoing piano figures supported by sparse string chords that end in a ethereal reading of the main theme on harp, again painting a singular mood of tender wonder. The brief ‘Audition’ returns to the string writing, here the low strings more rhythmically insistent and interspersed with high string figures and piano passages painting an atmosphere of suspense and subdued determination. ‘The Wait’ has almost Alexandre Desplat styled feel with double bass rhythm set against a bubbling piano solo and an expectant surging motif from high strings, deftly illustrating the boys’ nervous excitement at hearing the results of their audition.
‘Approved’ releases the tension with a soothing opening that blooms to a beautiful evocation of hope by luminous choral voices and ends on a happy note with the main theme supported now by subtle yet effective brass, giving the theme now a sense of accomplishment. ‘Childhood’ illustrates the loss of childhood and separation of friends by reprising the halting piano motif and dreamy atmosphere from ‘Plan B’ and Skram draws the score close in ‘Finale’ by slowly building powerful rhythmic pulse of the string ostinati, which initially swells and gathers more instruments in its wake but comes to a sudden halt as if to signify that the journey is still not complete and the score ends in a musical question mark.
Ballet Boys score makes a powerful impression despite its brevity. Many of the tracks on the album have a feel of independent vignettes serving as material to be used for multiples scenes of the main characters’ training etc. but these tracks always feel like part of the bigger whole both stylistically and thematically. The Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra gives a vibrant and deft performance of Skram’s score on this lively recording and the composer’s work speaks with a strong and clear emotional voice and even in such a short running time develops a great narrative arc, provides a varied and interesting listening experience and Skram breaths some new life to such well worn musical devices as the motoric ostinati figures. All these strong elements really separate this score from so many modern day soundtracks. A refined, thoughtful and most of all a joyous work Ballet Boys is a small triumph for Henrik Skram. Heartily recommended.
Ballet Boys is available as a digital download from MovieScore Media