January 2, 2013 -- Although the subject of this documentary is ballet, it follows a well-worn path of sports documentaries. First you get to know the players, who are young people from several different countries. Then you see them train. Then you see them compete. Then you find out what happens to them after the competition. If you've ever seen “Spellbound,” “Billy Elliot” or “The Red Shoes” you'll have some idea what you are in for here.
The film does a fine job letting you get to know these young people, who are mostly just nice kids trying to be as normal as possible, maintaining some semblance of childhood and young adulthood, while undertaking the rigorous training to compete in one of the most demanding dance competitions in the world, the Youth America Grand Prix.
The training is tough, with tortuous flexibility exercises, strength training and lengthy dance sessions. Participants talked about how tired they were and how much their bodies ache after these sessions. Ballet demands the body to do things the human body was not designed to do. One young boy particularly hated the flexibility exercises when coaches would bend his limbs around to extremely uncomfortable positions. While most teachers are not allowed to hit kids, dance instructors can, as seen in several instances.
This is where most films of this type end, as far as getting to know the characters. This one goes on to show the backgrounds and families of the dancers. It does a nice job of letting us get to know the principle dancers in the competition as people outside the dance studios and competitions. There is one “Tiger Mom” in the film, Satoko Fogarty, who has two children in the competition, her son, Jules Jarvis Fogarty and daughter, Miko Fogarty. Miko loves the dance and the training, Jules, not so much. While he hates the training, he shines on stage where his winning personality and big smile shows through.
The dancer with the most pressure on him to win is Joan Sebastian Zamora from a mountain village in Columbia, now living and studying in the United States. His family cannot afford to send him to a high level ballet school. He desperately needs to win a scholarship in the competition if he is to pursue his dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer. He is quiet and determined.
The most interesting story belongs to Michaela DePrince, an outcast orphan in the war-torn African nation of Sierra Leone. She found a magazine photograph of a graceful, smiling ballerina at the orphanage and dreamed of becoming one. She was very luckily adopted at the age of four, along with her friend, Mia, by an American family. Her mother, Elaine Deprince, said the child was so ill she was afraid that Michaela would not make it back to the states. Michaela said she knows that the ballet judges think that black ballerinas are too strong and not graceful enough. She intends to prove to them that she can be strong, and graceful too.
There are two “naturals” in the competition, Aran Bell, 11, who makes ballet look easy with his grace, poise and maturity, and Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, a beauty with natural flexibility and grace. She is trying to be normal, dropping out of a dance academy to attend high school. She even becomes a cheerleader. She has the talent to win the competition, but does she have the desire?The drama in the film comes from the competitions, and from injuries. This is a lot like the Olympics. There are not many chances in the nerve-wracking competitions to impress the judges and the dance companies. A single mistake or injury can negate all the years of training. The pressure to be perfect is intense. The film even manages a lot of drama in the presentation of awards and scholarships after the dance competition is concluded. There is plenty of drama in the film, but none of it feels forced and no dancer is forced into some mold to fit the story.
First time director Bess Kargman has done a great job with this film in letting the personalities of these dancers and their families shine through. She has made a film that lets the viewer know the people in the film and you can't help but root for them and be amazed when they triumph over the difficulties in their way. The cinematography by Nick Higgins and the musical score by Chris Hajian are excellent. This is a first class documentary. This film rates an A.
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