The MiNAPRESS Column

DANCE IN CINEMA. MiNA Recommends: “First Position” (Part II)

Posted in arts, ballet, cinema, dance, film, reviews by MiNA on July 3, 2015
Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Continuing our two-part review of director Bess Kargman’s extraordinary 2011 documentary feature First Position about youth ballet competition, we resume with coverage of Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) competitors Michaela de Prince and Aran Bell; and introduce dancers Rebecca Houseknecht, brother and sister Jules and Miko Fogarty, and Joan Sebastian Zamora.

Following Michaela de Prince’s costume mishap/dilemma (in Part I) de Prince sparkles on stage during the 2010 YAGP semifinals, giving a powerful performance that advancers her to the NYC finals. Immensely proud, her Dad states, “Tonight’s performance was perfect. She was in total control.”

Michaela de Prince pictured. Photo by Yaniv Schulman. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Michaela de Prince pictured. Photo by Yaniv Schulman. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Only three days before the NYC finals, de Prince develops swollen tendons. Torn over whether to compete or not, de Prince decides to press forward. Nursing her injury until the very last moment, de Prince shares, “My teachers know that even when I’m sick or injured, I won’t stop.”

Injured and all de Prince delivers yet another flawless performance. After the fact however, she admits, “I was in so much pain afterward.”

Photo of Aran Bell with friend Gaya. Courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Photo of Aran Bell with friend Gaya. Courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Once 11 year old Aran Bell arrives to the YAGP European semifinals in Sicily, he is pleasantly greeted by his enchanting young friend (and competitor) Gaya from Israel. Passionate and full of life, together these young dancers bring an adoring quality to the screen that’s as compelling and irresistible to watch as their dancing. Tremendous performers — are these two dancers, both of whom deservedly receive standing ovations; securing their spots in the NYC finals.

For 17 year old Rebecca Houseknecht of Odenton, Maryland dancing professionally is more than a pipe dream. She shares, “I started dancing just for fun, but now it’s much more than that.”

Photo of Rebecca Housenecht. Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Photo of Rebecca Housenecht. Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

In her final year of high school, Houseknecht admirably juggles ballet with academics and an active social life — all while coping with lingering pressures at home.

Despite fears over an uncertain future (post high school), during a discussion with her parents, Houseknecht puts on a convincing face to assure them they will get a return on their investment in her ballet training.

Once YAGP semifinals are underway, Houseknecht makes some first-hand observations. “People size you up as soon as you get there, especially in the dressing room,” she says.

During Houseknecht’s performance, nerves get the better of her, resulting in a near complete loss of focus. Afterward, Houseknecht admits with a smile, “it was horrible.” Then adds, “No one sees the hard work you put into it.”

As dance mentor Michelle Lees consoles her pupil, Lees recalls, “She was absolutely prepared for this competition.”

Fortunately for Houseknecht, YAGP judges see past her flawed performance and recognize what potential she has; ultimately letting her advance to the final round in New York.

Proud of her student, Lees assures, “She will do much better in the New York finals. ”

Miko Fogarty pictured. Photo by Nick Higgins. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Miko Fogarty pictured. Photo by Nick Higgins. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Photo of Jules Fogarty with mother. Courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

From the Bay Area, we are introduced to brother and sister Jules (10) and Miko Fogarty (12). Adamant about the proper balance between ballet training and childhood, Miko states, “Those that say I’ve missed out on childhood, I think I’ve
had the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.”

Encouraging Miko’s dedication to her art is her ballet teacher Viktor Kabaniaev, teacher/choreographer with Diablo Ballet. So that Miko can devote “more hours to ballet,”  Kabaniaev recommends homeschooling to her parents. With parents in full agreement, the family also decides to move to Walnut Creek, where she can be closer to the Diablo Ballet studios.

“Miko is exceptional student,” says Kabaniaev in a heavy Russian accent. Yet with Miko’s brother Jules (J.J.), Kabaniaev says with less confidence, “I don’t see that Jules is the same case.”

While favoritism toward Miko are clear case points, Kabaniaev does little to help instill confidence in his other impressionable pupil Jules. Instead, Jules demonstrates how painfully self conscious he is around other peers by confessing, “I don’t tell any of my friends that I do ballet because at my old school, I told them and then everyone started teasing me.”

In a later conversation between brother and sister about food, Jules jokingly calls Miko anorexic. Dismissing her brother’s accusation, Miko says, “I love food,” yet with some insecurity she adds, “There’s people who say I’m too skinny and I should start fattening up, but you have to be skinny to do ballet.”

During semifinals, Miko takes a fall and her mother blames herself for rushing her daughter. After Miko is given a second chance to perform, she sways both audience and judges and advances to the NYC finals; as does her brother Jules.

In time, Jules’s mother finally asks her son whether he truly enjoys ballet. To her disappointment, she discovers he does not share his sister’s passion. An understandably difficult conversation between mother and son, yet one that’s far past due.

Joan Sebastian Zamora pictured. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Joan Sebastian Zamora pictured. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Originally from Colombia, 16 year old Joan Sebastian Zamora, of Queens, New York, is an ambitious ballet student of mentor Flavio Salazar, whose hope is to one day join the Royal Ballet.

Inspired by his mother, a former ballet dancer, Zamora states in broken English, “My dream is being a professional ballet dancer.” He then adds, “So many dancers would like to have a career but very very few succeed. Ballet is very, very expensive.”

While Zamora speaks long distance over the phone with his father, he is reminded of certain harsh realities back home. “There’s nothing for you to do here in Columbia,” says his father, referring to the widespread poverty and work shortage.

As a teenager under the obligation of having to help support his family back home, the amount of pressure is inconceivable. Despite this, Zamora admirably demonstrates his maturity and commitment by doing what’s in the best interest of his family.

Focused on what he must accomplish at the YAGP semifinals, Zamora puts on a flawless performance; making his family and mentor proud, Zamora advances to the NYC finals.

Following the semifinals, Zamora returns home to Cali, Columbia. As we are introduced to Zamora’s mother, we learn that ballet is an unusual pursuit for most boys, yet his mom insists that ballet was a means of keeping her son off the streets.

Joan Sebastian Zamora at home in Columbia. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Joan Sebastian Zamora at home in Columbia. Provided courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Now a role model himself, Zamora is honored to serve as his younger brother’s inspiration to dance one day.

Easing his little brother into ballet, Zamora teaches him first position; one of the film’s most endearing scenes, when Zamora leads his brother into plié, in turn out.

During YAGP finals at the New York City Center judgment looms. While some dancers from around the globe give spectacular performances, others shed tears and endure inevitable disappointments.

To get a sense for what some judges are looking for during the competition, one judge states, “We’re looking for that hunger and need to dance; talent that will be exceptional 10 years from now.”

Once the final results are in, competitors (by division) are asked to take the stage.

From the 9-11 year old division, Aran Bell receives highest honor with Best Overall while his friend Gaya receives a Bronze Medal in the Women’s category.

From the Women’s 12-14 year old division, Miko Fogarty receives a Bronze Medal, while Michaela de Prince receives a scholarship to the ABT/Onassis School.

Though Rebecca Houseknecht does not place in the competition or receive a scholarship, two months following YAGP finals however Houseknecht is offered a position with the Washington Ballet.

As for Joan Sebastian Zamora, he is the proud recipient of a Royal Ballet scholarship and becomes the first Colombian student to attend the Royal Ballet school. Relishing his accomplishment he says, “This is my dream. My life’s gonna change.”

Inspiring and thought provoking on so many levels, “First Position” stands tiers above the bar —in the dance film genre. If you’re a dancer or a parent of an aspiring dancer, this is essential viewing. Even if you’re not a dancer — prepare to be both entertained and enlightened.

Courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Courtesy of Bess Kargman, First Position Films, LLC.

Until next time – Live. Dance. And Prosper.

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