First Position: backstage at the world’s biggest ballet competition

First Position – the new documentary about the rigours and thrills of the Youth America Grand Prix, will have two kinds of audiences – those who know little or nothing of ballet and those who have spent their lives so far immersed in ballet – as a dancer, parent or teacher.

For the first group, it’s a two-hankie movie.

Warning! For all those in the second group, it’s a 10-hankie movie.

What sets off the sniffles?

Unexpected success.

Devastating setbacks, (sobbing backstage after it all goes wrong; waiting at the hospital for a scan to see the extent of the broken bone.)

Homesickness (teens leaving home to study half way around the world from their parents.

Teachers’ despair.

Teachers only just holding back their ecstatic joy as their student takes gold.

Mums and Dads holding their breath for the two and a half minutes their child is up there on the stage.

The sheer brilliance of some of the young dancers.

Their vulnerability – are they merely lambs to the slaughter? Will they ever find a job in the double dip recession?

But the film has a positive spin, one that negates the doomsday theory of the author, Jennifer (“ballet is dead”) Homan.

No it’s not. The urge to commit is as pervasive as ever, the world is producing just as many ballet prodigies as ever, and the artistry is as evident as ever, even if choreography that excites and delights is having a bad decade or two.

First Position is not a Black Swan horror show, with much hand wringing over anorexia, bitchiness, ruthless parents and devilish teachers.

Nothing goes horribly wrong; the dark side of the ballet world is mostly hidden from the cameras and it all ends (almost) happily. *

First Position follows seven young dancers who enter (in 2010), the annual Youth America Grand Prix, a major international ballet competition that starts off with 5,000 entrants and ends with 300 dancers competing in the finals held in New York.

There they can win trophies or precious scholarships to major ballet schools around the world. Or go home with nothing but red eyes and Mum saying “but you were beautiful, beautiful”.

Among the judges that year were Elisabeth Platel (Paris Opera Ballet School), Gailene Stock, (Royal Ballet School), Marilyn Rowe (Australian Ballet School), Garry Trinder, (New Zealand School of Dance), Mavis Staines (National Ballet School of Canada) and Adam Sklute (Ballet West).

One of the seven young dancers drops out during the preliminaries but five of the remaining six emerge from the maelstrom with either a medal or a scholarship. The sixth wins a position in a company some months after the finals.

The film is in not an official documentary in which we see all the variations danced and winners, such as the 2010 overall Grand Prix winner, William Bracewell, a student at the Royal Ballet School, or the New Zealander, Hannah O’Neil, then a student at the Australian Ballet School, who won a gold medal and is now at the Paris Opera Ballet.

Rather, it concentrates on the seven dancers chosen, says the film’s director, Bess Kargman, “as much for their unique personal stories as their determination and talent.

“They represent a diverse range of subjects, both in terms of race, gender, socio-economic status and career goals”.

The families are just as diverse and the interactions of the families, dancers and teachers are revealing, showing glimpses of past and present conflicts.

The first dancer on screen is Aran Bell, 11, a very likeable, bouncy, resilient American, whose father, Ryan, is a US Navy doctor working in Italy.

As you can see in the trailer below, we meet Aran at home, chatting about the gadgets that help him turn and point his feet. Aran screws up his face and says: “I love ballet so much it’s hard to explain.”

His teacher (in Rome) is tough and very physical with his star student (no worries about touching in Italy it seems).

Aran befriends the 11-year old Israeli, Gaya Bommer Yemini, who becomes an increasingly important part of the film, although we don’t see her and her family at their home as we do with the other dancers.

Next in terms of age are San Francisco-based, Miko Fogarty, 12, and her brother, Jules, 10, whose father is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Their Japanese mother, Satako, explains how she educated herself on ballet, studying technique in Japanese language books.

She is a frighteningly driven ballet mother-tiger, putting the children on low fat diets, schooling them at home, pushing their limbs further and further as she works on their flexibility and driving endlessly from studio to theatre. As she says, people think she is too involved. When her daughter falls on stage during the competition, she blames herself.

Brother Jules tags along, there in body but not in spirit. His mother is the only believer. He will become as talented as her daughter. He will. He must.

Wrong. His body is wrong, his feet are wrong, but most of all, it’s wrong for him to dance. And he knows it. When he quits, his mother puts him on fast track for Harvard.

Miko is driven, committed, and stick thin.

She won a bronze medal (and was one of the top 10 in her division again this year).

Her brother teases Miko about being anorexic, which she denies, but that moment, and the suggestion, allows the director to at least raise the subject of eating disorders although anorexia and bulimia are not examined as they might have been.

The issue of the ballet mother is also canvassed indirectly. Satako is the personification of obsessive ballet smotherers but she is not portrayed as the villain of the piece. At one point, tears roll down her cheeks when she talks of how her son decided to quit. It’s a vignette that quietened the audience’s earlier easy laughs at what seemed a clownish figure.

Talking of ballet clichés, First Position features shots of the bleeding, peeling and mashed feet that are obligatory in any ballet film although there’s little discussion of injured spines, stress fractures, hips, shins, and psyches, all longer term problems than the outside appearance of those scrunched feet.

A very appealing dancer, Michaela DePrince, 14, suffers from tendonitis in her foot during the preparation for the competition, but she fights through to triumph, in line with the upbeat mood of the movie.

Her story, like that of the 16-year-old Columbian boy, Joan Sebastian Zamora, is a tale of talent and courage over apparent destiny, with both teenagers coming from impoverished backgrounds.

Michaela, born in Sierra Leone, lost both parents in that country’s civil war, one that took a death toll estimated at 50,000. It seemed as though no one would adopt her, but a family from Philadelphia eventually took the toddler home, along with another girl who had been left an orphan.

As Michaela gradually fell in love with ballet, her mother showed super human commitment. Especially touching was the way she spoke so modestly and ruefully about her task in using brown dye on all those bits of ballet attire that are normally “flesh” coloured, that is the flesh of white skinned people – tights, elastic shoulder straps on tutus, and the V-shaped net stitched into the top of a tutu bodice. All in order to perfectly match Michaela’s skin.

Her love and devotion to her daughter was deeply moving as was Michaela’s determination to fight the common misconception that black girls can’t succeed at ballet due to their more muscular body shape.

Michaela’s life is in direct contrast to that of the pretty blonde from Maryland, Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, an “everything is beautiful at the ballet” girl, who we see driving her own car complete with the steering wheel cocooned in a pink fluffy cover.

During finals’ week in New York, her mother buys her a charm from Tiffany’s in the shape a little crown.

Rebecca is extremely flexible, with a perfect ballet body, but at the finals, disaster strikes during her first solo performance.

Nevertheless, she too, is victorious as she bags a company contract in the end.

Perhaps the most empathetic dancer is Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, who left his family behind in Cali, Colombia in order to train in New York.

Here is a Mao’s Last Dancer story – a highly talented boy from a poor family from a small town where boys didn’t do ballet.

“Go”, say the parents, “go to Beijing or Manhattan or wherever. Work hard. Make us proud. Have a good car, a good life”.

Heartbreaking scenes show Joan Sebastian in his shabby Queens’ apartment, dialling home on a calling card and listening to his parents give him pep talks, and sending lots of love.

Just as Li Cunxin (Mao’s Last Dancer) triumphed with a contract at the Houston Ballet, Joan Sebastian is victorious, winning a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London.

We see him later in class, in school’s first year class uniform of pale blue, then standing on the “Bridge of Aspiration” in Floral Street, Covent Garden, that links the school with the Royal Ballet company’s home in the Royal Opera House. That twisty bridge and its title are more than ironic as so very few students join the company.

Joan Sebastian names Carlos Acosta as his hero and at the time the movie was shot, it did look as though he had the potential to follow in the Cuban’s starry footsteps. I’m not sure what’s happened to Joan but I hope his dream comes true. With his stoicism and talent, he deserves that success.

As for Aran Bell, since the 2010 competition he has danced in galas throughout Europe and the United States.

He turned down the lead role in a Broadway production of Billy Elliot, in case it interfered with his training.

His mother, Michelle, said he’s been asked to join many ballet schools, among them those linked to the Stuttgart Ballet, the Royal Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet.

First Position is first being rolled out through the United States until July when it will open in Canada. Between September and December the film will be released in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, France, the UK and Hong Kong.

First Position premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2011 and received rave reviews (as well as “best documentary 1st runner-up”). On the film festival circuit it won Audience Awards at the Dallas International Film Festival, the Portland International Film Festival and DOC NYC. At the San Francisco Doc Festival it won the Jury Prize.

The film is having another screening at the Sydney Film Festival on Sunday 17 June and while the festival’s website is showing “sold out”, there may be single tickets available if you keep trying or go along on the day to check for availability.

A DVD is likely to be available for sale online in August.

* Bess Kargman, who took ballet classes as a child, graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 2008. She said her curiosity was piqued when she saw a banner for the YAGP.

This led her to one of the founders of the competition, Larissa Saveliev who told The New York Times that filmmakers usually “want to see the fights, the teachers, anorexia,” angles that the YAGP was not interested in supporting for a movie. Saveliev also helped Kargman winnow the contestants to find those who would work as documentary subjects.

So to that extent, First Position does act as a publicity vehicle for the prix.

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Miko Fogarty (left) with Bess Kargman, photo © Yaniv Schulman

Miko Fogarty with the director of First Position, Bess Kargman, photo © Yaniv Schulman

Aran Bell with the movie poster for First Position

Aran Bell with the movie poster for First Position

Michaela DePrince, publicity shot for First Position

Michaela DePrince, publicity shot for First Position

Joan Sebastian Zamora in a Manhattan studio, First Position

Joan Sebastian Zamora in a Manhattan studio, First Position

Rebecca Houseknecht backstage before the YAGP finals, First Position

Rebecca Houseknecht backstage before the YAGP finals, First Position

Gaya Bommer Yemini and Aran Bell waiting for the results

Gaya Bommer Yemini and Aran Bell waiting for the results