‘First Position’ shows hope and hardship of young dancers

Dance should be about joy, but for the dancer it is also about obsession and pushing one’s body to the limits. Dancers are athletes and yet we rarely look at them as such. The documentary, “First Position,” shows just how far young people push themselves and are pushed to succeed as they compete at the Youth America Grand Prix. Unlike the LA Times dance critic, whom I’m not even sure really dances, I can’t so easily dismiss this affectionate look at young people on the brink of success in a fickle world.

Filmed in 2010, Bess Kargman’s 90-minute documentary follows three boys (Aran Bell, Jules Jarvis Fogarty and Joan Sebastian Zamora) and four girls (Gaya Bommer Yemini, Michaela DePrince, Miko Fogarty and Rebecca Houseknecht) as they audition, practice and audition again, all in hopes of a scholarship or possible job in a tight market where ballet companies are letting dancers go and the career of a dancers is very short. What will the families and the dancers sacrifice for their dreams?

The title, “First Position,” refers both to the first thing you learn in ballet (five positions for both the arms and feet) and winning. The competition is a misnomer because although it is a competition for youth from nine to 18, the competitors are not just from America.  That’s somewhat fitting. Two former Bolshoi Ballet dancers began Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) in 1999 as a non-profit organization to help young dancers become professionals by giving them educational opportunities, contract offers from dance companies, scholarships to dance schools, workshops with master teachers and performance opportunities.

Now, YAGP awards over $2 million in scholarships. Over 25,000 dancers compete now and the alums dance for 50 companies including the Paris Opera Ballet, the San Francisco Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.

This year’s finalists performed with stars of the world’s leading dance companies in “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” at the YAGP closing night gala at the Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater on 27 April 2012.

The finalists aren’t like ordinary people. They are children and young adults who have an unusually high sense of balance and bodies blessed with hyper-elasticity. Like all athletes, they must also have unusually focused dedication but they also must be physically pleasing to the eye. Dancing is a sport of aesthetics.

Like many sports, ballet technique changes the body and makes unusual demands. It seems a bit snarky for the L.A. Times dance critic Lewis Segal to write that “There’s valid evidence to validate Isadora Duncan’s belief that ballet techniqe deforms women’s bodies.”  Segal neglects to mention that quip was from a 1903 speech Duncan made in Berlin called “The Dance of the Future.”  For her “the dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise.”

The San Francisco-born Duncan is considered one of the creators of modern dance and we’re not talking about hip hop, TURFing or krump. Contrary to Duncan’s views, modern dance–not her version, but the street-born body lingo of hip hop and krump has a tendency to embrace commercialism over religion. You rarely see a ballet dancer heavily covered with the kind of bling rappers favor.

Then, again, Duncan also stated that “The real American type can never be a ballet dancer: The legs are too long, the body too supple and the spirit too free for this school of affected grace and toe walking.” That seems to contradict everything YGAP is about.

Duncan died for fashion in 1927 having been strangled when her long, flowing scarf got caught in the wheels of a car.  She was 50. and had become a Soviet citizen and was then known more for her public drunkenness, love life and sponging off of friends while incurring debt. Hardly the kind of person one would seek words of wisdom from. Sorry Segal.

Duncan was wrong in so many ways. Ballet has survived and so has modern dance and Duncan’s version of modern dance might seem as old and quaint to the youngsters of today as the concept of typewriters and telephone booths.  The parents of these hopeful dancers we meet in “First Position” probably would steer their children clear of Duncan’s excesses. The parents and their dancing progeny probably don’t care about Duncan. Yet one wonders if dancers really care what Lewis Segal has to say about dance and this movie “First Position” because it seems a bit snarly, and embittered, everything Kargman’s movie is not. Kargman’s documentary has an atmosphere of scintillating possibilities just beyond one’s reach.

Yes, Kargman looks at the deformed feet of the dancers, male and female, but like Duncan, Segal seems only concerned with the girls and women. Women weren’t meant to dance on their toes, but slapping one’s feet down on hard wood floors isn’t good for anyone. That’s a different type of repetitive motion injury.

Specialization in physical activities also results in specific physical injuries. Consider how deformed the hands of gymnast Kurt Thomas were after dedicating himself to his Olympic dream.  And the hands and feet of female and male flamenco dancers. What about the worrisome head injuries from football? Consider that plenty of women suffer from hammer toes and bunions from wearing ill-fitting shoes for mere fashion.

Are modern dancers less deformed? Less flexible? What will happen to the hip hop dancers who are modern day contortionists with their flexing and bone breaking? While perhaps there does need to be a study relating athletes and injuries, there’s something a little snide about Lewis’ remark that “it’s easy to look at Michaela DePrince, Rebecca Houseknecht and Miko Fogarty in their tutus and imagine them dancing in a professional “Swan Lake.” But it’s just as easy to imagine them a few years after that lining up for hip replacements.”

Perhaps it’s only part cause and effect because to be a dancer, one has to begin with hips joints that are shallower than normal to afford the range of movement. For some people the split leg position is natural. For most people it is not.

Yet in a small study in the Netherlands, no significant difference was found in degeneration of the hip joints between professional female dancers and a matched control. Naomi Rabinowitz, webmaster of dancerhips.com, comments that while “hip replacement is pretty common among dancers–and yes, ballet in particularly is very stressful to the hip joints.  In addition, many dancers start off with some mild hip dysplasia (unbeknownst to them) because it affords a big range of motion in the legs favored in today’s choreography. Over years that anatomical advantage is more likely to become degenerated.”

Watching the seven dancers stretch most of you will have no doubt–these people have bodies that aren’t like yours. When I see them, I wish I had started earlier and been less lazy. Imagine how flexible I could be now? For some of us, doing the splits is natural.

Enough about the LA Times, though. Kargman has chosen a diverse set of dancer athletes. Aran Bell is an Army brat, now with his parents in Italy. He plays on a pogo stick and skateboard. Yet he also uses devices that look like medieval instruments of torture to bend his feet toward a more pleasing high arch.

In class, amongst young adults, this 11-year-old kid finds someone close to his age, Israeli Gaya Bommer Yemini (11), and they become best buds. Michaela Deprince at age 14 has lived a life more filled with tragedy than most Americans twice her age. Orphaned during a war in Sierra Leone, forced to watch a teacher being physically mutilated, she was adopted by a nice American couple who bring warmth, humility and love to the term “stage parents.”

At the other end of society is the princess in pink, Rebecca Houseknechy, 17, who is a daughter of a well-to-do family with a new car and a Tiffany bracelet to lighten her heart as she competes. She has the talent and the looks, but does she have the fire?

For now, the 12-year-old Miko Fogarty seems to have the talent, looks and drive unlike her 10-year-old brother Jules Jarvis Fogarty who seems to be playing more tag-along than pursuing his own dreams. Their Japanese mother, Satoko, seems to be intensely driven to make sure her daughter succeeds, putting dance before school (the children are both home-schooled). Yet compared to the other competitors, Miko seems troubling thin, her arms are mere hangers for connective tissue and when she’s standing still you can see the top most ribs on Miko. When she flexes her back, pushing her rib cage forward, she’s a smiling skeleton floating across the floor.

For Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, he’s hoping to do well enough to get a scholarship to study with a major company. His dream would be to dance with the Royal Ballet. There he’d make more in one month than the average person would make in a year from his home in Cali, Colombia. The pressure he has on his young shoulders is illustrated in the phone calls he received from his parents.

LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan (in his 4 May 2012 review) compares Kargman’s film to the movie about spelling bees, “Spellbound,” and the movie about ballroom dancing children competing, “Mad Hot Ballroom,” calling kids competing a sub-genre of documentaries.   In his 13 April 2012 review of “First Position,” Lewis Segal compared the documentary to the fictional movie “Black Swan” and to “Center Stage.”

Segal mentions Sergei Polunin who left the Royal Ballet because of “the isolation imposed by the nonstop classes and rehearsals required.” Segal compares that to the isolation of Zamora from his family. That’s apples and oranges or star versus chorus.

Ukrainian Polunin is 22 and was the Royal Ballet’s youngest principal dancer at age 19 before he quit, according to an article in the Guardian. Like Zamora, he was encouraged by his parents to dance as a possible way to a better future. He joined the British Royal Ballet in 2003 when he was 13 under the sponsorship of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Polunin did receive an award at the YAGP in 2006 and in 2007 was named the Young British Dancer of the year. Yet it is only through the training and the prestigious awards that the possibility of becoming a member of a smaller group is possible.

Kargman’s documentary is about children learning a craft and hoping to find financial and institutional means of furthering their study. It’s a long way from becoming a master of technique to becoming the master who creates and innovates.

Kargman’s is about the journey up of young dancers waiting to be molded and not the journey after, when they must decide to be disciples or creators on their own. There’s a beauty in their dedication, in their seriousness and honesty and, of course, in their dancing.

The full story isn’t told by Kargman as the Washington Post noted. One dancer does quit, having received a contract. If you want to know who, follow this link to the Washington Post review.

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About Jana J. Monji

I've written for the Rafu Shimpo, LA Weekly, LA Times, Examiner.com and, more recently, the Pasadena Weekly and RogerEbert.com. I formerly worked for a dot-com more interested in yodeling than its customers.

Posted on May 26, 2012, in Movies, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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