Juan Alvarez’s Avant opens with a shot of the Sodre, a purpose-built concert hall that, like many big projects in this part of the world, opened years late, over-budget, looking like a white elephant. The narrative kicks in with the arrival of Julio Boca as the Sodre Ballet’s new artistic director. Boca is the superstar of Southern Cone ballet. Which means he’s more than just a ballet dancer. In Argentina and Uruguay he is revered. An Argentinean, he agreed to take on the artistic directorship of the Uruguayan company after having retired from dancing himself.
Avant traces the development of the Sodre Ballet as Boca’s management helps to transform both ballet and the building into a flourishing success. But this is just a single strand in what is an increasingly complex and sophisticated narrative, told with a detached eye and a finely-chiselled edit. The film touches on how hard it is to produce work of artistic ambition in the third world; but it also adheres to a democratic vision where the cleaner’s importance is respected just as much as that of the prima ballerina. This is a film conscious of its context, unafraid to allude to the socio-political conditions the ballet operates within.
However, no matter where it takes place, ballet is ballet. Avant is, above all, a film about what it’s like to create ballet. The show that reaches the stage, full of clean bodies in perfect sync, belies the labour that goes into the creation of the art. Alvarez’s film traces the thousand and one elements that go into the creation of a ballet, offering along the way some kind of insight into the stress that Boca and his company contend with as they struggle for perfection. Scenes such as a ballet dancer exiting the stage in tears, or Boca himself contending with the problems of communication from the sound booth, or the simple case of a man trying to pull an office chair up a flight of stairs, offer vivid insights into the difficulties of both creating ballet as well as creating ballet in the third world, without the film ever having to resort to any kind of formal explanation or exposition.
My personal relationship with the Sodre has lead to an understanding of an art which for many years I didn’t get. In Alvarez’s backstage vision we see how ballet dancers are as much like sportsmen as artists, pushing bodies to their limits, constantly challenging themselves. Where Alvarez could have gone for the X-Factor approach, his film instead conveys the dancers’ dramas with an understated eye, showing how their efforts are part of a greater whole. Alvarez achieves this with an almost metronomic discipline as he builds his portrayal, frame by frame. It is a cliché which, perhaps, he might not object to, to say that the film is a ballet in its own right, prioritising image and music above the spoken word, capturing the essence both of the Sodre and of ballet itself.