Sunday, September 22, 2013

First Position is Last

First Position, the high profile ballet documentary by Bess Kargman, has been out long enough for me to see the trailer a few times on You-Tube and stare at the poster advertising the film taped to the door at our local ballet school.  So we finally bought the DVD.
But much of this film is not really about ballet--not ballet as I knew it watching Makarova, Kirkland, Gregory and Van Hamel back in the seventies.
In those days, too many dancers were cocaine addicts or anorectic or both.  Or married to people with drug problems. 
Nowadays, the problems differ--to a degree.  What First Position reveals is a generation of dancers shaped by brutal overwork--children dancing roles created for mature dancers.   The results of this excessive training--which often starts as early as age three and continues seven days a week--is, for instance, the twelve-year-old Miko Fogarty dancing Kitri from Don Quixote:  Ms. Fogarty, technically driven and musical, has gone on, now that she is sixteen, to greater glories.
But does she menstruate?  Has she ever developed breasts?  At twelve, the bones in her chest were prominent.
Will her feet function when she is twenty-five?  Pointe work should begin around age eleven.  But Fogarty was already dancing Kitri at age twelve, so she must have started pointe around age six.
Will her hips disintegrate before she is twenty-five?
Will she still be able to dance at all at that age?
What kind of strength will this prodigy have after all the hours of excessive, damaging stretching? 
It's one thing to have hip-replacement surgery in your sixties.  Or even your fifties.  But for a dancer to have it in her twenties--that's a bad, bad, sign of the times.
Highly evident from this exceedingly disturbing film--all the more disturbing since so many regard it as an uplifting tribute to dedicated young dancers--is the destruction of ballet as an art.  What is ballet today if not a mix of contortion and acrobatics? Ballet today is hypermobility, or extreme stretching of joints.  It's thrilling to see a leg extend way above the ear, and a degree of hypermobility has always been a part of ballet training.  But First Position shows a turbo-charged, stepped-up training, in which young limbs are stretched daily, young, developing feet go into toe shoes prematurely, and God knows what happens to the mature dancer.
No twelve-year-old was meant to dance a role as technically and emotionally demanding as Kitri, a girl in love.  The role of Kitri requires feisty independence and sexy-know-how--joyfully as Ms. Fogarty danced, she does not have the experience--at least we hope not--to make this role what it should be.The hypersexualizing of children that beauty pageants promote is now evident in ballet competitions.
Miko's mother burst into tears talking about her son quitting ballet.  I have to admire this little boy--thrust, at age ten, into dancing the role of the Swan Prince--having the guts to say no to the mother who is filmed, in a classroom scene, forcing his leg into a stretch that does nothing but destroy the strength he might have had as a mature dancer, should he have chosen to continue his training.  It's not thrilling to see a ten-year-old boy doing tours en l'air (and here's what they are:
  No ten-year-old can do these turns well, and even if an exceptionally coordinated, strong boy manages to do so, the risk of injury or permanent damage is great.  What would his and Miko's stage mother do if her daughter quit?  One of the most chilling moments of First Position occurred when Fogarty described the feelings of a character she was dancing:  "Like a bird struggling to get out of a cage."  Is ballet a cage for her--one that she does not acknowledge?  Is her mother's longing for stardom the fuel keeping the talented daughter going?  Audiences are thrilled to see highly trained children doing tricks on stage.  But this film is about child abuse:  forcing children out of childhood into a version of adulthood that ensures they'll never reach the real thing.  Their emotional life must remain stunted and physically they'll be wreaks.   
Portraits of parents run the gamut from stage mother to supportive.  Or one of these under the guise of the other.  Miko Fogarty's mother pushes, tells her to smile, seems entirely obsessed with the idea of her daughter as a ballerina.  Other parents seem astonished that their son wants to dance, but do all in their power to find him the best teacher available.  Still others see dance as a road out of poverty.
The boys in ballet have it easier than they did a generation ago.  Ballet is filled with masculine, heterosexual boys:  it is no longer exclusively the refuge of gay men who have landed there because they have few other places to be themselves.   But ballet teachers seem, in this film, to live through their students vicariously, to place young students in dangerously demanding roles in order to satisfy their own desires for fame.
The boy from the military family profiled in this film struck me as a victim of a childishly sadistic, possibly pedophilic personality in his teacher:  footage showed the teacher chain-smoking, making bizarre, grinning faces, and slapping his prodigy on the belly and elsewhere whenever he felt like reminding him to pull in his stomach or turn out his thigh.
There are better ways to correct students.
The film showed two very different personalities who had in common their difficult beginnings and their longing to excel in order to remove financial burdens from their families, or even support them:  Michaela de Prince and Joan Sebastian Zamora come from impoverished backgrounds--she was orphaned as a young child in Sierre Leone and adopted by an American couple; he is supporting his family back in Colombia.  These dancers struck me as the most artistically developed of the personalities portrayed in the film--she is a radiant powerhouse, a sort of African-American Melissa Hayden, and he is a gorgeously lyrical, strong dancer whose style lends itself to the Royal Ballet--and he's won a scholarship to their school.  Ms. De Prince has had serious injuries--and no wonder, she is very hyperextended and routinely stretches her legs to what I would consider extremes.  
The brutality of contemporary training--the rush to build muscle and start pointe work young, the grotesque stretching--is one that I will make sure my daughter, a young dance student, avoids.  We'll stick to the basics:  a schedule that includes rest (never, never, seven days a week) and I'm not letting her put her feet in pointe shoes before she's eleven--and probably twelve.


  1. Get a grip! Paedophiles and hypersexualising....were you watching the right fil or did you stumble across a different film on youtube!

  2. I did indeed watch the DVD several times. Yes, pedophile: take a long look at the scenes with the talented American boy from the military family and the teacher in the Italian school. Thumping the kid in the gut. Hugging him weirdly and kissing the top of his head. Rolling his eyes in an unappealing, Dracula-esque way. Ugh. And the role of Kitri is not meant for any twelve-year-old girl, no matter how extraordinary her training. Why don't you take another look at that DVD?

    1. I agree with you ! And Miko isn't a star at all. She flys around the country dancing roles for Asian ballet companies. The Birmingham Royal Ballet only kept her for a year. Apparently they didn't like her or she didn't like being in the corp de ballet. Maybe it was her Mom who doesn't like her dancing in the corp. I don't think she could make it at NYCB or ABT or SFB because you have to start at the bottom and work up. Miko doesn't want to do that . She and/or her Mother want fame now. But I think you are right . She started too young . She doesn't have the passion to protray the mature roles. She's too sheltered and she's not that good anyway.

    2. Agreed. And what about her technique? How is her body holding up now that she's reached an age in which huge demands are routinely made on a ballerina's body? Do write back.

  3. I'm sorry but I dont think you'll ever understand the classical ballet industry unless you're in it. These methods are all normal. There is nothing wrong with hitting someone into position. It doesnt actually hurt and it is definitely the best way to correct. I dont think you understand that these children want to be this way and they will do what it takes to achieve their dream. There is nothing wrong doing pointe work early as long as you have a good teacher that supervises you. Have you seen Russian ballerinas? You can only become that strong by doing this everyday. Ballerinas are athletes and every competitive athlete knows that you have to practice everyday.

  4. Hmmmm. . . . the kid who was hit in the film mentioned several time how much it hurt. In fact, he said, "it really hurts." This is the child who has been invited to join "every ballet school on the planet," according to his Mom, and one look at him dancing and you believe it. It may look to you as though there's nothing wrong with doing pointe young . . . and it may not feel wrong until the bunions (that's the very least of it) develop before you're twenty. Take a look at this:
    You might change your mind. Practicing every day is not the same as training in a manner that destroys the joints and feet.

  5. And I'd like to point out that starting pointe before age eleven or twelve can really damage the bones--the kid who looks "strong enough" or "ready for it" at six or seven or nine may be crippled when she ought to be in her prime. And speaking of Russian ballerinas . . . they don't tend to age well. Look at their feet and their bodies by the time they hit thirty.