Forget all the ugly words, bad behavior, and cheesy dance competitions on TV's Dance Moms. Youth America Grand Prix is the real deal, with some of the most talented ballet students from around the world competing for awards, scholarships to top schools, and ballet company contracts.
Filmmaker Bess Kargman's first documentary, First Position, takes a fascinating insider's look at seven ballet students, ages 10 to 17, training and competing at YAGP. It addresses pushy parents, eating habits, injuries, and expenses. One mother notes that a competition tutu costs $1,500 to $2,500. A dancer holds up $80 pointe shoes, broken down after one day's wear.
First Position also has strong Philadelphia connections. Michaela DePrince - profiled in April in The Inquirer - was born in Sierra Leone, adopted as a war orphan, and raised in Cherry Hill. She is shown, at 14, training at the Rock School for Dance Education with Bojan Spassoff and Stephanie Wolf Spassoff. Her mother, Elaine, tints the "flesh-color" parts of her tutus with a brown Magic Marker to match Michaela's skin.
The film doesn't say it, but Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, from a village near Cali, Colombia, also trained at the Rock School. The filmmakers follow him on his first visit home in a year, where his parents say a career in ballet would earn him far more than most people make in Colombia.
The film shows the grueling work it takes for young dancers like Zamora to look effortless on stage, and First Position shows teachers who range from supportive to borderline abusive. One instructor gives his students small but audible slaps to correct positions. Another tells 10-year-old Jules Fogarty, just after he competes, that his best was not good enough. Jules still qualifies for the prestigious New York final, but he quits ballet before he gets there.
"I will break your feet or I will break my wrists," that teacher tells Jules' sister, Miko, 12, as he stretches her feet into impossible arches.
Despite its name, Youth America Grand Prix is not just an American competition. Aran Bell, 11, is a tiny, angelic-faced boy living in Italy while his father is in the Navy. He travels two hours each day to train with the right teacher.
Performances in this film are astonishing, with children as young as 9 dancing principal variations from Swan Lake, Coppelia, and La Bayadere. Their controlled pirouettes and balances, as well as their jaw-dropping flexibility, are more extreme than you might see from many professional dancers.
First Position shows the dancers' emotions, but it is weaker in building the suspense of the competition. That may be because the rules of the game are not fully explained. People raised on the Olympics may find it confusing that a fall on stage is not a fatal mistake.
The film explains that the judges are looking for a combination of factors, but it does not emphasize that artistry is ultimately what it's all about. In fact, it is that delicate balance of athleticism and artistry that make some in the dance world wary of competitive ballet.
But if the amazing kids of First Position are the future of ballet, bring it on.