Stars: Xenia Goodwin, Jordan Rodrigues, Thomas Lacey, Alicia Banit, Dena Kaplan, Keiynan Lonsdale, Nic Westaway, Tara Morce, Julia Blake and Miranda Otto.
Writer: Samantha Strauss
Director: Jeffery Walker.
Balancing the expectations of small-screen fans and bigscreen newcomers as deftly as a well-executed arabesque, Dance Academy lovingly follows the cherub-faced teens of Australia’s internationally popular TV series (2010-2013) as they rite-of-passage into the realities of reconciling artistic dreams with the onset of young adulthood. Destined to be a slumber-party staple for years to come, the combination of an engaging young cast, moving and understated melodrama and sensationally staged dance sequences make for a commercially potent package.
In the 18 months since the class graduated from National Academy of Dance, fortunes have varied for the key characters. Tara (a terrific Xenia Goodwin) has struggled to recover physically and mentally from a crippling back injury; her bf Christian (Jordan Rodrigues) has channelled his passion into the next generation of dancers, tutoring a harbourside dance class; Abigail (Dena Kaplan) is determinedly sticking to her dreams of dancing lead for the National Ballet Company under ice-queen Madeline Moncure (Miranda Otto, playing to the back row as the film’s closest thing to a villain); and, bombshell Kat (Alicia Banit) has found stardom in the US.
Having knocked back a million dollar payout for her injuries, Tara gambles on her dream and heads to New York where she reconnects with Kat and fallen teen idol Ollie (Keiynan Lonsdale), whose been reduced to the same round of thankless chorus auditions as Tara must endure. It takes the reappearance of series’ favourite Ben (Thomas Lacey), whose own plight puts all other concerns in perspective and refocusses the chemistry and dynamic of the group, to help Tara redefine her goals and ambitions. Oz acting greats Julia Blake and, fittingly, Tara Morice, star of the iconic 1992 dance pic Strictly Ballroom, impact in support roles.
In the hands of alumni helmer Jeffery Walker (director of 8 episodes) and writer and co-creator Samantha Strauss (scribe of 23), this exercise in brand upsizing avoids any notion of ‘cynical cash-in’ by affectionately crafting warmly relatable characters and a (mostly) believable narrative. Australian cinema has a chequered past with TV-to-film reworkings. Michael Carson’s Police Rescue (1994) embraced the larger canvas, resulting in a pleasing if low-key actioner and the late Steve Irwin’s daft family adventure The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course (2002) was pleasing enough, but more often adaptations resemble stitched-together episodes (Number 96, 1974) or, worse yet, risible misfires that kill off any lingering goodwill (Kath and Kimderella, 2012).
While maintaining the heart that helped make it a small-screen hit, Dance Academy looks every bit the sumptuous bigscreen drama. The film is rich in tech assets, with the dance-friendly widescreen cinematography of 47-episode veteran Martin McGrath (Proof, 1991; Muriel’s Wedding, 1994; Swimming Upstream, 2003), original score by Oscar-nominated David Hirschfelder (Shine, 1996; Elizabeth, 1998) and the precise editing of Nikola Krulj and Geoffrey Lamb all strengthening the legitimate franchise potential. It is a clearly achievable goal, with every frame exhibiting the same crowd-pleasing qualities as profitable properties Pitch Perfect and Step Up.