TRIBECA 2022: ‘LIFT’ Is a Touching Testimony of the Transforming Power of Art

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LIFT

Movies about ballet tend to focus on the enormous sacrifices that this art requires, often reaching extreme levels — Suspiria, Black Swan, or the recent Dancing on Glass are examples of this. It is also common to think of ballet as an elitist and artistic expression exclusive to the upper classes. However, David Petersen’s inspiring documentary LIFT breaks away from these notions and portrays ballet as an uplifting artistic tool that provides growth and hope even in marginalized communities.

LIFT is the name of a New York Theater Ballet Community Service Program that provides scholarships to children living in homeless shelters. Steven Melendez started practicing ballet at the age of 7 thanks to this program and eventually became a world-class dancer. Now retired and serving as director of LIFT, Steven begins a journey through the city’s shelters to recruit young talent and provide hope for a better future through ballet.

In addition to Steven, Petersen follows three BIPOC kids from the LIFT program: Victor, a young prodigy with a promising future; Yolanssie, an intense and aggressive Puerto Rican girl; and little Sharia, who lives in a shelter (unfortunately, we don’t learn more about her).

Petersen follows these three people for several years — 10 in Victor’s case — which, in addition to giving depth to some of their stories, generates a feeling of satisfaction in seeing how they grow, learn, overcome life’s obstacles, or even manage to escape their complicated socioeconomic situation.

Victor and Yolanssie exemplify the value of LIFT and ballet in different ways. Thanks to Victor, we understand the potential of a social program properly structured and oriented towards creating a real change; the young man achieves his goals because, in addition to possessing a great work ethic, talent, and passion, he has the full support and trust of mentors interested in his growth. On the other hand, Yolanssie turns out to be a fascinating figure who illustrates the power of LIFT to keep young people off the streets. When she can no longer attend ballet classes and therefore has too much free time on her hands, she doesn’t know how to channel her aggressive personality, so she starts getting into trouble at school after befriending all the wrong people. Yolanssie presents a challenge to Steven, who uses ballet and his wisdom to try to pull her away from trouble.

As I hinted earlier, the film has trouble balancing the focus of its subjects. We learn a lot from Victor and Yolanssie, but Sharia’s impact in the story is minimal because Petersen forgets about her for long periods of time. However, her sweet presence and an important event in her life create tender and touching moments that go hand in hand with the general message of LIFT.

The film’s timeline is weirdly disorganized. Petersen introduces us to Victor when he is 10 years old and to Yolanssie when she is 12, but after a while, the Victor we are following is 16 years old. One would expect that when we return to Yolanssie, she would be 18 years old (Victor has aged 6 years in the film), but she is not… she is only 13. This temporal disarray, which goes back and forth between subjects over different periods and ages without any explanation, causes confusion and distractions. However, this time sin doesn’t deteriorate the overall experience because, ironically, the edition is quite fluid, and the overflowing passion that everyone shows on screen becomes a cozy blanket of optimism that embraces you and makes you forget any technical problem.

And to glue everything together is Steven, who, besides recruiting, orienting, and teaching homeless students, is exploring his childhood traumas through ballet: as part of his introspection, he plans a performance with LIFT students that, besides allowing us to learn more about the film’s subjects and their parents, eventually leads to a rousing finale. 

Although it encounters some bumps on the road, LIFT successfully forges a touching testimony of the power of art to transform lives, inspire, and create purpose. It’s refreshing to see such an uplifting ballet tale that captures its beauty and hopeful force while breaking stereotypes.

LIFT had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. You can learn more about the LIFT program on NYTB’s official website.


LIFT
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    Rating - 8/10
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TL;DR

Although it encounters some bumps on the road, LIFT successfully forges a touching testimony of the power of art to transform lives, inspire, and create purpose. It’s refreshing to see such an uplifting ballet tale that captures its beauty and hopeful force while breaking stereotypes.