29 May 2015

First Position

I am deeply skeptical of movies about ballet for some reason, but my parents had recommended this one in glowing terms, and when a person is physically destroyed (aerial conditioning + 20 mile bike ride) it's kind of satisfying to watch other people exert themselves. To my pleasant surprise, however, this movie was fantastic. And did not really depend on a person being into ballet (though I am, I just don't like movies about it), though obviously that helps. The documentary follows a handful of young people who are training to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, a major ballet competition. It turns out, real dancers are pretty fascinating. Obviously the filmmakers picked out some particularly interesting people to focus on, but still.

Unlike many sports movies where the point is to win a prize, end of story, here the competition is rather more meaningful: among the prizes (there are more than 20, making it seem less impossible) are scholarships to dance schools and contracts with major companies. So you really get a sense of these kids' future being on the line in a way that isn't always the case in such films.

Also, unlike many stories of children competing, in this movie, one never has the sense that the parents are pushing their kids into something or forcing them to push a hobby into something bigger. Yes, there is one mother who says that she was a failed ballerina and wanted her child to dance, and there is another one who cries when her child decides to quit, but you never see the terrifying stage parents common to other documentaries about gifted children. Instead, you see the (in some ways terrifying) drive and self-discipline of these kids, who work unbelievably hard and make a lot of sacrifices so as to devote themselves to their art. And you also see their parents and siblings make a lot of sacrifices (or others, in some cases -- as one mother points out, when the father moves his office to be closer to the ballet school, all of his employees are affected!), and spend A LOT of money (which surprisingly, does not seem like a racket -- a lot of the things dancers require, like a personal trainer, many many pairs of pointe shoes, and intricate, hand-made tutus and costumes, are just expensive), without getting much in return. When you consider that in many (even most) cases, a dancer's body will be shredded by the time s/he reaches 30, it seems completely insane. The movie in no way romanticizes this, or uses it as a way to make ballet seem more beautiful or noble. All it does is show you footage of different people dancing.

You don't realize how much emotion is in a ballerina's dance until you see two different children give performances, one serviceable, the other phenomenal. In the first, you realize that technical proficiency is not enough -- the je ne sais quoi of a beautiful performance is a certain amount of feeling, and obviously one does not expect an 11 year old to convincingly manifest desire, or heartbreak. But when they do, ie, the latter case, my god, that's a show-stopper. It's not creepy, the way little girls singing sexy songs in talent shows are: it's a moment when they somehow seem to be in possession of an astonishing amount of wisdom and emotional maturity. As one mother puts it, "something happens in her face, and she becomes an adult in those moments."

Now, for me, the moments of truly extraordinary dancing in the film make a very powerful case. Not that it "makes it all worth it," it's obviously more complicated than that, but still -- wow. I think you could very easily watch this movie and not come to that conclusion, without feeling like you were disagreeing with the film, and without diminishing your enjoyment of it. Ultimately, what makes the movie compelling, cheesy as it sounds, are the truly compelling and unique stories of the different people in it, and the way the movie really gives you a sense of them as actual people, rather than a collection of relevant features. It's really an excellent movie, and available on Netflix Instant. Check it out.


cbk said...

You have also indirectly explained why that Sia video with Shia LaBoeuf is so damn creepy. That kid is also very much an adult, yet also entirely not. ::shudder::

juegos yoob said...
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