I was twelve. The movie was The Turning Point starring Shirley MacClaine and Anne Bancroft, but it wasn’t either of their academy award performances that paralyzed me, it was the aspiring teenage ballerina Emilia, played by the real life ballerina Leslie Browne. I’d been taking ballet, but after watching the swanlike grace of the grossly naïve Emilia being twirled about the floor by the gorgeous, newly defected Michael Baryshnikov the deal was sealed for me. Ecstasy, an emotion I had no concept of at the time. Love, all consuming. I knew in that instant that this is what I, too, wanted. I think of my nephews now as I write this, each in their teens, one dreams of being a professional soccer player, the other in the NBA…blind to the gulf before them, adamant, they work hard, they train…
Except for Billy Elliot staring Jamie Bell, I’ve not seen a ballet movie since that has touched me in the same way. Not The Company directed by Robert Altman and staring Neve Campbell, not Black Swan directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie Portman, each movie beguiling in its own way, I simply couldn’t get past the fact that these women playing achingly dance obsessed characters weren’t actually dancers. Sure there were the angles, the effects, the tricks of the camera but you have to dance to act the soul of a dancer, like Jamie Bell or Leslie Brown. Not even Meryl Streep could do it.
The desire to dance is like a wild current that stretches out from your soul all the way up to your fingertips and out your toes, literally. Whether you are born with this desire or you acquire it, it is a need that consumes every part of your being. Expressing yourself. You. Must. Dance. See the film The Red Shoes, the apotheosis of all dance movies, of what it means to have a dream so unearthing, so shatteringly dark, tragic (it sets the tone for last chapter in my book, Reel Life: A Novel, because I just couldn’t help myself).
While the splendid Ballets Russes (2005) is for ballet aficionados, First Position, just released, is for everyone. It’s a wonderful documentary about kids, aged eleven to nineteen, competing at the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition. To win or do well here could earn you a scholarship, a contract; it could change your life.
This is no spelling bee. The director, Bess Kargman, spotlights six kids on their journey to this competition. All sizes, shapes, and colors, these adorable youths share one thing, their desire to dance comes from within. No one is pushing them to dance, not their parents, not their coaches, not even fame really. No fights, no anorexia, no tiger moms, one gets the idea that these kids were hand picked to inspire us, for one can imagine what really goes on behind the curtains of these competitions, but for this documentary, who cares. Let yourself be inspired. Because who can’t remember that moment when they decided to be Lionel Messi or Kobe Bryant. An orphan from war torn Sierra Leone, at aged four sees a picture of a ballerina on the cover of an old magazine and decides her fate, as if she had a choice, of all the most unfathomable dreams. So we will see.