First Position -- Film Review

First Position

Directed by Bess Kargman

This is an outstanding documentary about the lives and struggles of young ballet dancers at an exceptionally high level of achievement.  It follows six dancers preparing for the Young America Grand Prix, one of the premier ballet competitions that attracts top talent from all over the world.  Five thousand dancers enter the competition, but relatively few win awards.  The film followed winners.  It is legitimate to ask what happens to the losers, but the film wanted to exalt ballet, and so it emphasized those who struggles elevated them to the foremost rank among their peers.  It did touch on some of the disappointments that dancers face and the injuries that are the constant bane of their lives.  But the film did not want to dwell on the cost of this high achievement -- and the cost is high, not only to the dancers, but also to their families.  There is a distorted development that results from putting this kind of relentless pressure on a child to climb to the top of Mount Everest.  Some things are lost, some things are left out, no question.  But if the norm is mediocrity, is that a fair measure for people at the highest end of the achievement spectrum?   These people are different, their experiences are very different from that of most workaday people in society.  They are groomed essentially from the cradle to aspire to the pinnacle of achievement.  This isn't "normal," although it does take a broad based pyramid of strivers to bring forth this cream at the very top.  There are certainly detrimental aspects to it, but it is not clear that their lives are any worse than those of most other people, and they do have one area where they shine far above the others.  It makes them special, and gives them a kind of psychic fortress where they have absolute hegemony, but I think it can also be a prison. 

One thing I have noticed about the ballet world from seeing films like this one, and Danse Russe, and my association with the San Francisco Ballet,  is that the ballet world understands what it takes to produce artists at the highest level of excellence, and it is not just about training in dance and physical fitness, but it means nurturing the complete human being who is to become a dancer.  It is impossible to bring people to this level of perfection and skill without a vast network of support beyond just the immediate family, sustained over a long period of time.  When you watch a skilled ballet dancer or troupe, you are not only seeing the achievement of those individuals, but an achievement of their families and the culture from which they come.  Ballet is a social achievement and an expression of cultural values as well as an attainment of excellence in the individual dancers.  In every case that the film followed there was a very strong mother providing constant support and encouragement to the young person in their ambition to ascend to the top of the dance world.  Fathers were present and supportive, but it was the mothers who were the driving force.  This contrasts rather starkly, I think, with athletes in American sports like baseball and football, where it is most often the father who is the impetus toward high achievement.  It probably makes for a much different psychological dynamic in ballet dancers versus other kinds of athletes, although the film did not explore this, or even raise this question. 

There is a widespread misconception which the film did address that ballet is unmasculine.  American boys who take up ballet are often teased at school by other kids who think it is somehow feminine and an unnatural activity for a boy to engage in.  This, of course, is foolishness and ignorance.  Ballet dancers train like Olympic athletes and their skills are every bit comparable.  Boys who dance ballet are lean, muscular, and strong, but graceful and delicate as well.  It is a masculinity that is refined, sophisticated, and complex compared to the raw aggression and brutality encouraged by football.  Ballet is a worthy alternative to football for boys.  Think about it. 

I liked that the film followed the dancers beyond the finish of the competition.  Rebecca Houseknecht, for example, did not win an award in the competition, and appeared to be one of the many disappointed also rans.  But several months after the competition she got a call from a ballet company and was hired.  A job is better than an award in a competition in my eyes, and it goes to show that competitions and awards are not the only avenue of success in the performing arts.  There were a few brief interviews with some of the judges of the competition who explained their criteria for judging and what they looked for in a dancer.  The differences and similarities between the judges were interesting.  I wish this had been explored more fully because it would have offered insight into the values that define the character of ballet performances at major ballet companies.  This film is an excellent inside look at the world of ballet competitions.  It is a complimentary viewpoint, but not a whitewash.  It did not evade the casualties and the cost of this driven race to the top, but its verdict is that the attainment of this supreme perfection of the human body and its movement is worth the high price and is deeply satisfying to both the dancers and the viewers.