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Dance Life, Prime review: Australian reality show boosts the soul

The Sydney-based docuseries rewards real talent and delivers on genuinely spectacular choreography.

‘I just don’t know what I would do without dance. I’d just be, like, normal, but that’s no fun.’

Max S, one of the most capital-E entertainment stars of Prime Video’s new Australian reality TV show Dance Life, may sashay through the five-part series like a living parody of sassy dance school kid, but the fact is, he’s earned it.

The show focuses on a core group of wannabe professional dancers in their final year at Sydney’s industry-leading Brent Street school, and he’s a real stand-out, as superstar Australian choreographer Kaylie Yee quickly identifies. The assistant creative director of The Squared Division, a powerhouse LA-based outfit that has worked with the likes of Lis Nas X, Katy Perry, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears, Yee knows what she’s talking about.

Singling Max S out to perform an on-the-spot routine at the 2022 Light The Way Dance Convention – an industry hot spot where agents, choreographers and creative directors descend to pick out the next generation’s brightest talents – her backstage debrief with him is joyous. ‘I could feel you with me the whole class … you need to know how great you are and how great I think you are.’

Big-hearted

Directed by Luke Cornish, who also delivered street dancing doco Keep Stepping, Dance Life hooks you in with the dancers big-hearted (and occasionally big-headed) aspirations during a first but hopefully not last season.

Another fave is the other, very different, Max, Max O. A sweet, curly-mopped and shy guy who keeps his cards closer to his chest than Max S, he’s the clear favourite of commercial jazz choreographer Cassie Bartho, who may open the show shrieking ‘Shut your mouths’ at the assembled unruly class and self-describe as a ‘psychopath’, but is actually a big ol’ softie, despite her exacting expectations.

Describing Max O as a powerhouse, she says he’s a once-in-a-generation talent who brings style, strength, technique and charisma to bear. It’s left to school head Lucas Newland to level that what might end up holding him back, unfairly, is his diminutive height, with much of the business predicated on a man’s ability to hold a woman aloft.

A subplot about whether or not he’s going to make it over a wall in one dance movement set to Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ is a big deal. His journey also leads to a reality TV worlds colliding, with a cameo by the America’s Got Talent judge we love to hate, Simon Cowell.

There’s an interesting reckoning with the dance industry’s impossible body-beautiful standards, too. Something that unnerves the resilient and energetic Emily, who is a sweetie but brings with her the tragic backstory required by all reality TV. Raised by her grandparents, her mum died of drug-related complications and her abusive dad’s not on the scene.

‘It’s so hard to face someone who gave up on you,’ she says, but also yearns for him to tell her ‘I love you,’ even as she reasons that those words, ‘Aren’t meant for us’.

One of the purest souls on the show, Emily can’t quite shake off the niggling doubt she’s not supposed to be there. When one teacher underlines how much dance requires embracing your inner ‘sexiness’, she’s the first to raise her hand when the class is asked who doesn’t feel comfortable channelling that energy. 

The often rigid gender roles of dance routines also raises interesting stuff from the perspective of non-binary student Archer, who discusses dysphoric feelings brought on by suggestions they hit the gym, buffing up to appear more ‘masculine’ to land gigs.

It’s challenging to watch sections where teachers discuss male and female roles, no doubt without malice, but immediately affecting the confidence of Archer’s posture. But just you wait for their crowning glory in the grad show and a gorgeous moment in the ‘women’s’ bathrooms with all-singing, all-dancing buddy Arabella the blows that binary right out of their hair.

Triple threats

You’ll leave empty-handed if your hunger for reality TV requires back-stabbing traitors and high drama that’s snappier than Max S.

While the impressively forthright Erin is unafraid of challenging her teachers about being overlooked for a spot in the coveted Jazz One class, with the straight-faced musing that her fate is, ‘Like when someone is put in jail for a crime that they didn’t commit,’ she’s another secret softie. She’s the best for Max S when his perma-confident shield slips when he has to show up and sing – they’re all taught to be triple threats, with acting also in the mix.

And then there’s Erin’s bestie Kim, who talks about the pressures of being beautiful, already has an agent and doesn’t always feel the need to show up when gigs come calling, but isn’t as bad as all that really.

With no real baddies, Dance Life remains very far from dull, rewarding real talent and delivering on genuinely spectacular choreography. There is still nail-biting energy over who’s going to make the cut and grimace-inducing accidents, with Cassie underlining the brutal physical and mental toll meted out on a professional dancer’s body and soul.

There’s also abundant good humour, and not always from the most obvious of places AKA the high drama of Max S, as tempered by his low-key boyfriend and fellow classmate Connor who performs the straight man routine, from a purely comic perspective.

Tianna may be one of the straightest-laced students, with a laser-like focus on success that has her fessing she’s never even had a sip of booze, but she can’t quite keep a straight face with her parents eternally giggling behind her.

A giggle indeed, Dance Life steadfastly remains the sort of soul-charging boost we arguably need way more of these days.

Dance Life premieres on Prime Video on 19 January.