Tag Archives: youth america grand prix

‘First Position’ – Pleasant. Happy. Shiny.

18 May

Rebecca Houseknecht in FIRST POSITION, directed by Bess Kargman.
Photo Credit: Bess Kargman
A Sundance Selects Release

First Position is a fitting title for a documentary about ballet, especially one that “centers” around the different “stages” of a dancer’s career. Life is a series of new beginnings and every time you think you’ve made it in a particular endeavor, something new lurks around the corner and next thing you know, you find yourself at square one—or as it is with ballet, in first position, how every class begins at barre—unless your teacher starts pliés in second. Or maybe a parallel first…but I digress. The point is, most of the time, you find yourself in first, ready to begin each class anew. Whether you’re an aspiring dancer in training or a professional, first position anchors you to the experience of starting over. It’s some kind of metaphor for life or something like that.

Anyway, Bess Kargman’s film follows five young dancers of varying ages and backgrounds, pursuing the dream of becoming professional ballet dancers, and competing in the illustrious Youth America Grand Prix. It’s a colorful cast of characters with a pretty blonde princess in pink, a black girl fighting racial stereotypes, a young Latin man living far away from his family to pursue a better life, a pair of Asian-American kids with a heavily invested mother, and the son of a Navy officer currently living and training in Europe. Anyone who follows ballet has seen most of these people before and can probably even name professional dancers who have preceded them under similar circumstances. However, it would be a gross generalization to simply file these kids into such categories. For example, the extraordinary Michaela DePrince is a war orphan from Sierra Leone who has witnessed far more horror than any child ever should, including the death of her parents at the hands of rebels. It’s sort of an odd conundrum because ballet so frequently calls for setting aside individuality—whether it be developing uniformity in the corps de ballet, a choreographer asking dancers to embody his/her vision, or even teachers asking for technique to be executed in a certain way—that these personal stories are of utmost importance. I will always marvel at them, as familiar as they may (or may not!) be, and luckily First Position is laden with inspiring ones.


In addition to typical, but likable characters (Jules, the little brother of Miko Fogarty is a great comic relief), there is the assortment of stock topics like eating disorders, injuries, pressure to succeed, etc., thus rendering the film as one that doesn’t really present anything new, though it does show a reality that is at least truthful. The problem with trying to create a complete picture of ballet at this level is that many things are inevitably skimmed over, and while you hear the dancers’ perspectives on these topics there isn’t time for a great deal of elaboration. As a slice of life the film does a fantastic job and as a balletomane it’s obviously entertaining to me. However, I find myself struggling with trying to describe why the film matters in the grand scheme of things because it’s neither a historical piece nor the subjective type, so the message is rather murky. I’m all for watching these kids tell their unique stories and for getting a glimpse at their incredible gifts—it’s obvious the director wanted to see the physicality of dance in a way that likens it to sport, but I would’ve liked to have seen something to balance it out by showing why dance is not a sport. Approaches to training aside, consider how sports psychology is seen as a legitimate field of study, when I’d venture to say there’s not nearly as much in terms of performance arts psychology. It just seemed like there were opportunities to briefly illuminate on such matters like that or even genetic factors, like how the mere chance at a ballet career can be decided so quickly upon physique was something only casually mentioned, when it could have provided a broader scope as to how rare these kids are. And let’s not talk about how the film glazed over Carlos Acosta! Joan Sebastian Zamora idolizes him and equates his desire to be the first Colombian dancer to join the Royal Ballet to Acosta being the first black dancer to have done it, but Acosta has accomplished so much more and is a MEGA-STAR (yes, read in all caps) in our world.


Without giving too much away, I’d like to mention some of my favorite parts of the film. There was a moment where Michaela shared a bit of wisdom far beyond her years, in which she said that what they put their bodies through is “not normal.” She’s obviously mature for her age to recognize that much, and it almost makes me wish she didn’t have to grow up so fast the way dancers do because they have to make career decisions in adolescence…but it makes me a big fan of hers nonetheless (hell, I’m twice her age and still lacking a sense of purpose!). Clearly, she has a good understanding of what she’s gotten herself into. Also, the insanely talented Aran Bell (whose teacher is Denys Ganio, formerly of the Paris Opera Ballet and father of Mathieu Ganio, now a principal dancer with POB—is old school and absolutely hysterical) has a special friendship with a little Israeli dancer named Gaya Bommer. In the film I believe they’re both eleven, so it’s not like they’re dating, but it’s kind of like how Balanchine once said something to the effect of just having a man and a woman on stage automatically creates drama. Aran and Gaya are carefree, goofy, fun-loving kids that are as irresistibly cute as baby bunnies. Looks like a childhood doesn’t have to be completely sacrificed for the sake of the art.

Gaya Bommer and Aran Bell in FIRST POSITION, directed by Bess Kargman.
Photo Credit: Bess Kargman
A Sundance Selects Release

Well, I won’t go into further details because I don’t want to spoil the film for those of you still waiting to see it, but I will say that despite some obstacles along the way, like a Soviet Swan Lake it’s all about the happy ending here, which speaks volumes about the level of talent at the YAGP. However, such a result also shrouds some of the more grim possibilities and the fates of the forgotten. Still, as fluffy as First Position is, sometimes it’s just plain nice to see plenty of good fortune to go around. It’s not a film that’s going to shatter the image of ballet or smash through misconceptions, but it’s a film that will leave you with a smile on your face, which is always worth more than the price of admission.

For Seattle area-readers, First Position will open Friday, May 25, 2012, at the Seven Gables Theatre in the University District. For everyone else, be sure to ‘like’ First Position on Facebook for theatre listings and updates on screenings.

‘Only When I Dance’ – yet another DVD review

23 Feb

From one end of the Earth to another, my next DVD of choice was Only When I Dance, a documentary featuring two young dancers from Brazil, Irlan Santos da Silva and Isabela Coracy, pursuing the dream of becoming professional ballet dancers.  The film, directed by Beadie Finzi markets itself as an inspiring coming-of-age story where the two dancers overcome adverse conditions like growing up in the violent favelas of Rio de Janeiro and for Isabela in particular, racial challenges as a black ballerina.  The blurb on the back of the DVD even goes as far to say that this is a feel-good documentary…but I must’ve missed something because while the future is quite rosy for Irlan, it remains uncertain for Isabela, who I felt got slightly less attention in the film.  Given, Irlan is that rare gem of a dancer you know will go on to great things and has far more illustrious achievements during the filming period but I don’t feel that makes Isabela’s career path in dance less important or less interesting.  Quite frankly, it seems a little counterproductive to make this type of documentary but then tip the scales in favor of the star dancer and then to call it “feel-good” undermines the difficulties Isabela faced.  I feel for her—but I’m not sure I liked the way she was used in the film.  Her presence in the documentary was warranted because she had an equally interesting story to Irlan’s and not because she was a black girl who happened to dance at the same studio as him, a character to flesh out Irlan’s story.

Maybe I’m in a mood or something because that sounded awfully scathing coming from me, but I can’t help but feel an injustice when I watched Isabela’s dream to dance in a major ballet company crumble and then read on the back cover that this is supposed to be a “feel-good” documentary!  A great stink is made about her weight throughout, and it’s clearly something that distresses her greatly.  Talking about dieting brought her to tears and after a visible weight loss by the Youth America Grand Prix, her teacher again told her that Isabela’s weight was an issue for the judging panel (Isabela was not selected to move on to the finals of the YAGP).  A visit to the doctor even revealed a skin condition that developed out of emotional stress.  She is perhaps unrefined, which is hardly uncommon for someone her age but I saw a lovely girl and a beautiful dancer.  Her family took out loans to be able to afford her trip to New York and it was just heartbreaking to see what is in my opinion a ridiculous “issue” become the deciding factor in Isabela’s career.  Where was the discussion on her technique?  Her teacher Mariza admires her artistry, and while I felt like she lacked some spark in the YAGP, the poor thing was probably starved and exhausted!  It was hard to watch, and knowing that her family could still be in debt over it is difficult to know.

Irlan is the golden boy, which you find out in mere seconds just by his genetic gifts and watching him move.  Somewhat reserved, but with a coy charm, he has quite the presence for such a young man.  Like Isabela, they both come from impoverished conditions but with loving homes and seeing Irlan’s father smile when he talks about how watching his son dance changed the way he thought of ballet warms the heart.  Irlan achieves the pinnacle of success for a dancer of his age by winning an apprenticeship at the highly prestigious Prix de Lausanne and we have our uplifting moment.  What I noticed throughout though was his austerity—he exhibits a lot of maturity for his age, having the desire to leave his neighborhood and bring his parents with him for a better life, which is quite the onus for a teenager!  He performed his contemporary variation, from John Neumeier’s Nijinsky with such conviction that you’d think he was old enough to have seen the Nijinsky himself.  It’s a happy ending this time as Irlan takes a scholarship at American Ballet Theater, which was only two or three years ago so I expect as he develops his voice as an artist and strengthens his technique even more, we will be hearing more about him soon enough!

Despite Irlan’s success, I couldn’t help but feel a tinge of sadness as a response to the film as a whole.  Rather than uplifted, the film procured strong reminders of how much ballet asks of these kids and others around the world.  They have to make life altering career choices at that turbulent age we call “adolescence,” and I say this as someone who went to college, got a degree, and a few years out is only beginning to get a sense of my place in life—that’s crazy!  I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be, and how in spite of the desire to dance, the reality is that for some aspirers, it never happens.  Dealing with not getting your dream job is a much different beast at seventeen or eighteen years old as opposed to anything over the age of twenty-two!  While it’s clear Irlan is just one of those people that has always had the maturity to realize his dreams, I find myself endlessly impressed with his attitude.  It’s not just the career choice itself, but moving away from his parents, his hometown, and practically everything he knew for a life in a foreign country is the epitome of courage.  Again…ballet asks so much of kids.

I forget who it was, but some journalist last year complained about American companies “importing” foreign dancers in favor of developing home-grown talent and you know what?  Chauvinism is outdated.  Ballet audiences give little thought to a dancer’s country of origin because we just want to see great dancing and it’s even been said that sometimes adversity produces greater artists because they have a sense of desperation others who may begin ballet as an extracurricular activity don’t.  When I think about how a kid like Irlan chooses to show our country his talents, I feel honored and far from wishing he was an American!  Whether foreign dancers are getting contracts or guesting with American companies, I feel like offering the opportunities is the least that can be done in this rapidly globalizing world which seems to exceed its own levels of globalization every second (and there are many damn good American dancers anyway!).  While there isn’t a great amount of dancing in this DVD, I recommend it not for the “uplifting” story but to offer some perspective on what dance really means to some people.