‘First Position’: Dancers at a breaking point
By Sarah Kaufman,
A beautiful dancer, all long legs and sparkle, enters a ballet competition and lands a job. She came in a student, leaves a professional. In the gamble that is serious dance lust, she hit the jackpot.
A year and a half later, she quit. Burned out.
This was the experience of Rebecca Houseknecht, whose arc from Odenton to the spotlight in New York at age 17 is chronicled in the new documentary “First Position.” Gorgeously re.ndered with heart and wit, the film follows a half-dozen ballet hopefuls as they attempt to fashion themselves into winners at the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), which bills itself as the world’s largest student ballet competition.
The film, which opened Friday for a limited run at Bethesda Row Cinema, captures only half of Houseknecht’s story, her glittering upward trajectory. But her life beyond the cameras has turned out to be quite different.
Such is the reality of a dance career, a fragile thing at best. The shaky nature of sustained success in the field makes the warmth with which “First Position” embraces the competition scene look a bit naive. Yet it must be said that the YAGP’s seductions are difficult to resist. Even in their less gentle aspects.
First-time director Bess Kargman, herself a one-time ballet student, captures both the charms and the horrors of dance competitions. Here is the breathtaking beauty and seriousness of the children, their sweet mischief, their astonishing life stories: one orphaned in Sierra Leone, another from Colombia, bearing the hopes of the family he left behind.
Also on view is the punishment they put themselves through.
You want crazy sci-fi effects? Gore? Forget “The Avengers.” See this film, where hamstrings that seem constructed of some futuristic fiber put rubber bands to shame. These kids literally pull themselves apart in an arms race of flexibility. While warming up, they yank their legs over their heads and around the other side, pelvises cranked skyward. It’s impossible not to see the irony in one scene, in which a girl is stretched out on the floor in front splits, one leg with its injured calf resting on a bag of ice, the other extended up on the seat of a chair.
Feet are fetishized: The camera zeroes in on lovely, pliant arches in gleaming toe shoes. It also exposes what’s inside that dainty footwear: the not-so-lovely, blistered, bleeding naked feet, pocked with open sores.
How do the dancers get that super-bendy foot flexibility that has become so prized? In this account, it comes from torturous foot-stretching contraptions or from a teacher grabbing a kid’s foot and bending it with both hands, adult muscle molding tender bone.
Houseknecht has seen it all before. An only child, she has competed in jazz, ballet and other forms of dance since she was 7. To polish her ballet technique, she studied at the Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring during her senior year at Arundel High School. Michelle Lees, the ballet school’s principal, sized up her potential — natural ability to turn, well-proportioned body, blonde prettiness and charismatic stage presence — and agreed to coach her for YAGP.
Lees knows something about competitions, having won “Best Couple” with her partner in 1972 at the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria. Back then, it was the primary destination in the world for young dancers and carried unparalleled prestige. Now, competitions have sprouted up all over the map. They have become a popular way not only for students to be viewed by potential employers but also for schools to gain recognition. Still, Lees is of two minds on the virtues of scoring an art form.
“How can you judge artistry?” she says over a latte across the street from her school. “You can have two people doing the same variation exquisitely well, but with different interpretations. Who’s to say who is best? It’s not a sport.”
Lees also appears in “First Position.” She is one of the few teachers featured who exudes calm non-drama as she oversees one of Houseknecht’s rehearsals, compliments her handling of a flawed performance and notes the reality that otherwise goes unmentioned in the film: the dire job market for dancers.
To Houseknecht’s surprise, the filmmakers got in touch with her after the YAGP regional competition in Philadelphia. “I had a really rough performance for my classical section and came offstage really upset, kind of cursing and yelling and crying,” Houseknecht, now 19, recalled over the phone recently. “I didn’t realize there was a camera in my face.”
A week later, they e-mailed a request to follow her around, praising her, she recounts with a laugh, for being “colorful.”
“I was shocked,” she said. “I’m just like a regular person. I thought. ‘Why does someone want to follow me around?’ ”
They filmed her at dinner with her parents, and in her pink-drenched bedroom. They filmed her at Arundel. They filmed her driving her car, pink manicured fingers clutching the fuzzy pink steering wheel. And they filmed her throughout the YAGP finals in New York.
Houseknecht left that competition without a medal. But she had something better: an invitation to take a company class from Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre, who was one of the judges.
“I can still remember how strong her turns were from the upstage corner down the diagonal,” Webre says, speaking from the Kennedy Center during a break in rehearsals. Houseknecht had performed one of the Odalisque variations from “Le Corsaire,” full of pirouettes and sustained balances.
“I thought, ‘Wow, this girl has got something,’ ” says Webre. “She was a beautiful girl, had strong technique and that Factor X — a kind of star appeal onstage, a connection with the audience. It’s really important, and she had it in spades.”
Webre, a longtime YAGP judge, estimates that over the years he has hired a dozen or more dancers, including current company members Maki Onuki and Jade Payette, from YAGP competitions. But the YAGP performance alone is not enough to go on when considering a possible hire, he says.
“I must see them in class. Some of medalists have been working a whole year or even longer on a variation. Just dancing the one variation. So it can hide flaws. That’s one of the downsides of the competition world: It doesn’t give a comprehensive view of a dancer.”
After watching Houseknecht in class, he hired her for his Studio Company, a starter-level troupe for younger dancers. And this is where “First Position” stops.
Of course, Houseknecht’s story continued, but not in the Cinderella way the film implies.
Says Webre: “Right away we looked at her to tackle solo roles. I certainly expected great things from her.” She danced multiple parts in “The Nutcracker,” and performed her Odalisque variation as part of the main company’s full-length “Le Corsaire.” After a few months, Webre wanted to promote her to the company. But Houseknecht had had enough.
“I really liked it the first couple months,” she says, “but I just realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t like having to dance for my job, as weird as it sounds. You’d think it was my dream, but it just didn’t work.”
She stuck out the year and then left. She’s now studying speech pathology at Towson University. She is also on the school’s competitive dance team, which performs jazz, hip-hop and pom routines at football and basketball games.
So what does she take away from the YAGP experience?
“Meeting all the great people,” she says. “And showing everyone out there that you can be normal and still live your dream.”
She pauses. “Well, normal-ish.”
Running through May 17 at Bethesda Row Cinema, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda