Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Staying the Course: First Position

Rebecca waits in the wings, in a scene from Bess Kargman's First Position

There appears to be no end to the public’s fascination with what goes on behind the scenes at the ballet. Witness the success of Darren Aronofsky’s feature film Black Swan whose lurid backstage view of the ugliness often lurking behind the beauty of the classical dancer had audiences everywhere riveted. If you were to ask Bess Kargman, she might tell you that a lot of what is depicted in Black Swan is true – the dagger-like competitiveness, the eating disorders and above all the sacrifice executed on the altar of perfection. Kargman knows because she was once a member of that perilous pointe shoe world herself, having studied at the School of Boston Ballet, the academy that made headlines in 1997 when one of its young dancers dropped dead as a result of complications brought on by anorexia.

Kargman never went the full course to become a professional ballerina, having understood only too well the level of commitment involved. (She actually went on to play hockey.) Instead of a stage career, Kargman turned eventually to journalism, specializing in fact-driven projects for National Public Radio. She never lost her own fascination for ballet, however, and believed it would be a meaty topic to tackle having seen for herself that it represented a world more complex and nuanced than what often is presented before the footlights. A chance encounter with legions of ballet students on the streets of New York in 2009 eventually showed her the right approach to take, involving her once again in dance but from the perspective of a newly minted documentary filmmaker.

The young dancers she encountered on her lunch break were all vying for a place in the Youth America Grand Prix, a make-em or break-em ballet international competition started by ex-Bolshoi Ballet dancers Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev in 1999 where the rewards include a scholarship to some of the world’s leading ballet academies American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet and New York City Ballet among them or a job with one of the parent troupes. They might have been kids, but after sitting for a while in the dark of New York’s Skirball Center watching the dancers performing exquisitely, and exhaustively, for the panel of judges, Kargman could easily see their determination in making their ballet dreams come true. She returned the next year, in 2010, with a small crew to document this outsized zeal for dance as demonstrated mostly by miniature bodies, zeroing in on their behind-the-scenes struggles to win early success. The result is First Position, an award-winning doc opening in theatres in May and June across Canada and the U.S. that never misses a step in peeling away the tulle to reveal ballet for what it really is: a rough-and-tumble arena where many are defeated and only a handful chosen; it’s that tough.

Director Bess Kargman with Michaela (left) and Miko (right)
While cinematically polished –Nick Higgins’ cinematography is clean and unobtrusive, Kate Amend’s editing is sharp and the dancers are beautifully lit – First Position, is a film that probably only an ex-dancer could have made: It is unflinching in its sizing up of ballet’s hardships, both financial and physical, at the same time as it is deeply passionate about its subject matter. As Kargman shows, these young dancers suffer for their art, practicing long hours many days a week, frequently complaining about the pain, but they also create beauty with their bodies. It is this dual reality of ballet – equal parts hardship and glory -- which Kargman’s film captures extremely well. While essentially different from Aronofsy’s film – his is fantasy while hers is unglossed over reality – First Position is Black Swan minus the madness and many of the stereotypes, a backstage look both sobering – tutus cost thousands of dollars, and injuries are rampant – and worth celebrating, especially when all the hard work pays off.

Certainly the audience is rooting for the dancers. Kargman carefully chose six from the roughly 5,000 young hopefuls wanting a spot in the 2010 edition of Youth America Grand Prix, following them for a year in making this delightful nail-biter of a film. Their ages range from 10 to 17 and they come from a variety of backgrounds. Aran Bell is an 11-year-old living in Naples with his U.S. army parents. Besides ballet – in which he endures an hour and half each day to take ballet classes in Rome with the ex-dancer, Denys Ganio – he loves to shoot a BB gun. Bell is an all American boy who loves ballet without reservation, determinedly calling it a manly pursuit. In the film, he even has a girlfriend, Israel’s hyper-kinetic Gaya Bommer Yemini, also aged 11, who brings down the house with her extraordinarily expressive interpretive dance – definitely a one-to-watch. Michaela DePrince is a 14-year-old living in New Jersey, the daughter of white parents who adopted her after she survived the murder of her parents in war-torn Sierra Leone; ballet for her is a way to escape deep-rooted pain and sorrow, and yet ironically in the film she battles tendonitis until the very last qualifying round, creating real-life suspense and drama. Joan Sebastian Zamora is a poor 16-year-old from Columbia who has come to New York to make a better life for himself and his family on the wings of ballet; when he is homesick his father tells him he cannot come back because there is nothing to come home to as there are no opportunities. Joan jumps because he must. Rebecca Houseknecht is a 17-year-old blonde from Maryland, nicknamed Barbie for her love of pink and the bendability of her super-lithe body; her parents are working class and they have invested heavily in her having a ballet career. Lastly, Miko (12) and Jules (10) Fogarty are a brother-and-sister act from the San Francisco area pushed from behind by a Tiger Mom who sacrifices everything for her children to succeed in ballet, spending annually around $50,000 in lessons and costumes. “Anything bad that happens,” she says at one point in the film, “is my fault.” Her son provides comic relief by failing to rise to the standard of his mother’s ambition; even his own teacher thinks he’s a disaster. Jules matter-of-factly shrugs it off. He’s just not ballet material.

Gaya and Aran, both age 11
Just who will survive ballet’s high stakes game is, in this case, left to the judges representing some of the best companies in the world. They are a seasoned bunch and they’ve mostly seen it all – the Nureyev’s, the Baryshnikovs, the Guillems of this world, as well as the proverbial blood on the pointe shoes. They know ballet isn’t glamorous; they know that it is mostly a slog plagued with the daily threat of injuries. Their task here is to ignore the backstage dramas and concentrate on singling out talent and pushing it to the forefront, if only as a way to ensure the future survival of the art form. It is for them the dancers work so hard, or do they really?

A large part of Kargman’s charm as a filmmaker is showing that while the dancers want the satisfaction of an award, something to show for all their devotion and dedication to the craft, they are also in it because it is what they have chosen for themselves to do in life. They have no choice. They must dance because it is the one thing that gives them joy and a sense of identity. “Those people who say I’ve missed out on childhood,” says Miko Fogarty in the film, “I think I’ve just the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.” Out of the mouths of babes, you could say. But this young dancer speaks her own truth. She is aware that ballet is a two-pronged existence – the trials and tribulations of class combined with a joy of dancing; a solitary pursuit of perfection combined with the unstinting support of parents and teachers behind-the-scenes; the thud of a fall combined with the exhilaration of a soaring leap; the heartbreak of losing combined with the euphoria of winning and finding a future in the one thing that matters most: dance. Kargman provides a glimpse into the process that brought her early to this realization, and made her, finally, want to stay ballet’s demanding course.

It’s an awe-inspiring sight.

Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. She is also the author of the national best-selling memoir, Paris Times Eight (Greystone Books/Douglas & McIntyre). Visit her website for more information Her next book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, comes out later this year.

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