Saturday, June 9, 2012

First Position

FIRST POSITION                  B                     
USA  (90 mi)  2011  d:  Bess Kargman                        Official site

There’s always an untold story behind the story of documentaries like SPELLBOUND (2002), where cameras roll in the lead-up to picking a new national spelling bee champion, as the audience needs some idea how the filmmakers get so lucky in choosing eventual champions when deciding which contestants to follow more personally ahead of time in competition documentaries.  This first time director is a former ballerina, where her perspective is invaluable as she takes a behind-the-scenes look into the competitive world of youth ballet at the Youth America Grand Prix, where after passing earlier qualifying rounds in 15 different cities based on geographical regions, prizes and scholarships are awarded in the finals to the top dancers, often a determining factor in their prospective careers.  Kargman follows a half dozen dancers as they are relentlessly trained by their instructors, where the impact this has on their families is immediately apparent, as some willingly sacrifice their entire lives, others live vicariously through their children’s exploits, hoping their children can accomplish what they never could in their own lives, while siblings look admiringly at all the attention these dancers obtain, as so much praise and adulation is heaped upon those with promise at such an early age.  Some of the dance sequences are ravishingly beautiful, easily inducing the audience’s attention, but unlike Fred Wiseman’s ballet documentaries, Hargman shows only edited versions, where the totality is often lost on the viewer, especially during the competition performances themselves.  What might seem surprising is that the competition performances rarely meet or exceed the quality of practice performances, where under the studied and watchful eyes of their coaches they are pushed to the maximum. 

Likely the best example of the manipulative stage mother is exhibited by Satoku, the overly pushy mother of Miko and Jules, ages 11 and 9, whose every living second is lived for and through her two kids, home schooling her kids so they have more time to practice, where the older Miko is driven to be the best, while Jules goes through the motions, apparently to please his mother, while their Russian coach rolls his eyes at the regularity of his mistake-prone routines.  Jules, however, is a happy and huggable kid who surprisingly displays a healthy amount of common sense, even when those around him are lost in the obsessive search of approaching perfection, and even when his mother imposes a diet of broccoli and carrots every day on the entire family, as no one needs to gain a few extra pounds.  Almost defying belief is a young Romeo and Juliet couple of Aran, 11-year old son of a Navy father that continually moves around frequently, seen training with a cigarette smoking Frenchman who recognizes a unique talent that likes to fly around backstage on a skateboard, and Gaya, a somewhat goofy and always upbeat Israeli girl of the same age, whose mother choreographs her more modernist routines.  Apparently they train at the same locations, where they met, and instantly started doing everything together, where her excited vitality is a healthy balance to his more low key and even aloof personality.  They become one another’s strongest supporters, which translates to their parents as well, each pulling for the other.  The director doesn’t delve behind the scenes questioning what would happen if Aran’s family moves away.  

The oldest in competition is Rebecca, a 17-year old California girl who’s already driving (with a fuzzy pink steering wheel cover), who amusingly makes fun of herself as everyone at her school routinely calls her “Barbie.”  A look into her pink-themed bedroom reveals an overly pampered rich girl who defines herself as a “princess,” with street signs indicating Princess Way and Princess Lane, which has obviously been ingrained into her head since she was little.  Driven by a need to be perfect, it’s amusingly ironic that when we see her back stage resting before a performance with other dancers, she’s swigging Pepto-Bismol out of those pink bottles.  Probably the most compelling story is Michaela (14), a war victim and orphan from the Sierre Leone Civil Wars, an adopted American child with a fierce desire to overcome the stereotype that black girls don’t make good classical ballet dancers, as they’re too muscular and lack finesse, who also suffers from a skin pigmentation issue that leaves visible spots on her neck and shoulders.  In the perfectionist world of ballet where everyone spends so much time sculpting and perfecting their physiques, any noticeable imperfection stands out.  Of course, the backstage staring eyes of others only magnify what’s obviously different.  Perhaps the most spectacular dancer is Joan (pronounced Jo–on) Sebastian, a 16-year old kid from Colombia living away from his family in New York City, who lives with a fellow Latin American roommate, seen eating rice and beans every day, whose shirtless performance wearing only tights may induce rhapsodic shivers of sheer delight to some, as this kid is so physically developed, yet his flawless technique has already been perfected.  He dutifully calls home to his mother frequently, but this is such a sweet and likable kid, it’s impossible not to root for him.  Even his coach, a former dancer himself, is a constant delight.  One of the highpoints of the film is when Joan has a chance to return to Colombia for an all-too brief family visit, where a home cooked meal is something to be savored, where the instant love and affection is indescribable, but also where the hopes of the family’s economic future rests on his young shoulders.     

Choosing a diverse cross-section of kids aged 9 to 17, starting with a field of 5000 contestants, where only 300 make the finals, the competition is divided from ages 9 – 11, and 12 – 14, with prizes awarded to the top three, while older dancers exclusively seek scholarships to continue their training, as a pair of ballet shoes, which they go through every day, costs $80, not to mention the high cost of hand sewn costumes, a strictly regimented diet, rented studio space, a variety of coaches and personal trainers, some just for stretching, and often away-from-home living quarters, with some, like Rebecca, already seeking job offerings.  One of the hidden costs of pursuing this career is the untold number of injuries and ailments that accumulate, the same as any other professional sport, often requiring surgeries, where aches and pains, not to mention bleeding feet, are simply lived with as part of their daily routine.  Watching them contend with obvious pain issues may make some in the audience wince with discomfort.  While the lead-up to the qualifying rounds and to the finale itself is suspenseful, filled with superb performances, where the audience may actually root for their favorites, the finale is somewhat anti-climactic, showing little of the zest and spontaneity seen earlier, where the dance routines themselves feel quickly cut off.  There are behind-the-scenes untold stories, such as why Jules was allowed an extra competition do-over, supposedly because he was the youngest performer, but one suspects their conniving mother had something to do with it, and the director herself is guilty of a certain dramatic manipulation, where she intentionally misleads the audience at times.  But the overall enthusiasm for dance is exquisitely expressed, where the individual portraits of the performers are wonderfully engaging, where the dance routines and kids themselves couldn’t be more appealing. 

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