‘First Position’ Will Keep You on Your Toes

Guest Blog: Beth Kargman’s ballet documentary follows six young contestants from five continents dancing for the chance to change their lives

This award-winning documentary about talented young dancers ages 9-19 vying for ballet’s elite Youth America Grand Prix begins with the resounding thud of the toes of ballet slippers crashing onto the wooden stage. Pink slippers with thick pink ribbons attached to the dancers’ ankles, piercing like the shattering sounds of horses' hooves. Tiny people with mega-power on their tippy-toes dancing their hearts out to win this contest and have their lives transformed.

Beth Kargman’s documentary, grand prize winner at the Toronto, New York, Vancouver, Portland and San Francisco film festivals, follows six young contestants from five continents. Many are poverty-stricken, but they all train like athletes to compete in the most prestigious ballet competition in the world. Yes, ballet dancers are athletes and sustain injuries like football, baseball and basketball players, but few people recognize the suffering that goes into this rhythmic sport.

They have five minutes on stage to prove their talents to the judges despite injuries, blisters, and open sores on their precious, talented feet.

As I watched "First Position" I was reminded of my friendship with Mikhail Baryshnikov. After his performance in "Metamorphosis," I had the opportunity to see his bare feet backstage.  I was seeking an interview with him for Parade magazine, which he granted, and I will never forget seeing his magnificent feet. They could have been studies for Picasso’s detail drawings for "Guernica."

Mischa was courteous and did not resent my commenting on his beautiful feet or my blatant stares. Many times during our friendship he invited me, and also my mother, to see him dance. Mischa respects mothers, as his had committed suicide. As I watched "First Position," I wished I could tell Mischa about this enchanting, inspirational film.                                                                                                                       

A beautiful black girl from Sierra Leone, Michaela de Prince, who was about 16, has a skin disease which has marked her neck with white spots. Pigmentation problems. “Can you see my spots from the audience?," she asks her surrogate family.

“No,” her caretaker says.

“Good. Then I know I can be a professional dancer." She adds: "But everyone knows black girls can’t dance ballet. I want to be known as a graceful black dancer.”

Michaela fled war-torn Sierra Leone, where she witnessed the murder and dismemberment of her parents.

Being a student of ballet is expensive. “It costs $80 a day for shoes,“ Michaela says. She was one of the winners who won an ABT scholarship.

Joan Sebastian Zamora from Colombia says, “My dream is to be a professional dancer.  Sometimes you wake up and your body is so tired. I wonder why I do this, but when I take a class, I know I want to do this.”

The footage of Joan in the primitive dwelling of his parents in Colombia eating homemade chicken soup with pride because his mother made it for him is touching. He does pirouettes between the clotheslines with mountains in the distance. Later, in Manhattan, he dances in his sneakers while waiting the subway.

His father advises him to practice and says, “By 35, you are on your way out.” Then he adds, “Dance was a way Joan didn’t spend too much time in the streets.”

“My dream is the Royal Ballet,” Joan says, and his dream comes true. When he wins a scholarship to the Royal Ballet, he says. “My life is going to change.”

Miko Fogerty, age 12, says, ‘My ballet teacher suggested I do homeschooling so I could do more ballet.  I miss my friends a lot. There is only my mother and father. I don’t tell my friends I do ballet because they tease me. A lot of people call me pretty gross because I can do weird things with my body. It’s a way of expressing myself other than talking.”

About his sister also a dancer, Miko says, “She fell, she got up and danced like she didn’t fall.  She’s tough. To be great — tough is the word.”

Rebecca Houseknecht, who is from Maryland and is also a cheerleader, says, ‘I eat a lot. I have a normal life.” Her parents say, “Rebecca’s face changes when she dances. She becomes an adult.”

Filmed in Colombia, California, Philadelphia, Maryland and Sicily, this documentary ends with the prestigious awards ceremony at New York City Center.

Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer Yemini (from Israel), Michaela Deprince (Sierra Leone), Jules Jarvis Fogerty, Mike Fogerty, Rebecca Houseknecht (Maryland) and Joan Sebastian Zamora (Colombia) are the stars of this fascinating and beautifully told story by first-time filmmaker Beth Kargman.

Kudos for all who appeared in the film and who participated in its creation. To those of you who think watching ballet is boring and for sissies, you will think again after seeing "First Position."