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