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:
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.