Culture Magazine

Prodigious Kids Who Are Born to Excel at Something

By Shannawilson @shanna_wilson

Prodigious kids who are born to excel at something (and their...
Prodigious kids who are born to excel at something (and their...

Prodigious kids who are born to excel at something (and their mothers who push their limits) whether its math or chess or athletics, make good documentary subjects. In First Position, director Bess Kargman wants to show viewers that all ballet dancers are not all anorexic zealots with stage parents. But there’s still some major stage parenting occurring in this film.

Michaela DePrice, a Sierra Leone orphan, adopted with her sister at the age of four, by a Jewish couple in Pennsylvania, dreams of being a black white swan. But she’s got an athletic build, and has been told in the past that black girls can’t dance ballet. She also has a skin pigmentation that kept her from being adopted, and she’s fretful it could keep her from being selected as a dancer. Aran Bell, (easily my favorite) precocious son of a Navy doctor, lives in Naples, Italy where his father has been stationed. His parents have made location choices to support his ballet career in the past, and you get a sense that this kid is already a star. He has the personality, maturity and mannerisms of a 35 year old. Watch out for that one. His dance teachers thinks so too. Joan Sebastian Zamora hails from Colombia and at just sixteen, has moved to New York City on his own to pursue his dream of becoming a principle dancer. He has the body, the talent and the heart, and he eats a lot of rice and beans with his roommate. He misses home, and the juxtaposition of his life in New York (the film doesn’t make clear how he’s affording an apartment there or dance lessons) vs. his family’s life in Colombia is remarkably stark.

Rebecca Houseknecht looks the part of a prima ballerina—tall, lithe, blond—but there’s a sense from the beginning, her mother wants it more than she does. With a pink fuzzy steering wheel cover, and princess sign and tiaras all over her bedroom, you can’t help but want to plop her toned little derriere in a soup kitchen full of homeless people, or reality. Hard to feel any sort of emotion for that one. And then there’s Miko, a 12 year-old Japanese American, with a hilarious Calvin and Hobbes reading 10 year-old brother (a ballet drop-out) and a crazed tiger mom in tow. Lucky for tiger mom, Miko is naturally gifted, and loves dancing as much as her mother wants her to. It would appear that Miko is painfully thin, not just because of her hours at the barre, but becomes mommy dearest withholds the cheesy potatoes. Its difficult to watch a 12 year-old dance when you can see every single bone in her overly skeletal rib cage through her dress. But she’s a true talent, with the soul of a dancer. The entrepreneur husband of the tiger mom has moved his entire office of workers to a new location for his 12 year-old’s ballet tutelage. Let’s assume his workers hate him. When her son tells her he doesn’t want to dance anymore, Tiger mom cries as though someone just told her she didn’t make the soccer team, or get asked to prom. Parents who push their children excessively to do things they don’t want, as a means of fulfilling their own missed opportunities or because they think its for the good of the kid are often far off the mark. What does this achieve? Its important to do the things you don’t necessarily want to do. Life is full of that in general. But in certain segments of upper-middle class societies, there’s a race by parents, for pursuit of something that often may not be entirely fulfilling in the end for their children. The money, the sacrifice, and the time spent in some of these pursuits are worth a separate documentary. 

While this film is engaging, and the standouts among it are Michaela’s parents, Aran Bell, Nadine, the mother of an Israeli modern/cartoon dancer, and Joan Sebastian, there are just as many unlikeable subjects with goals that seem vapid, and dreams that lead to emptiness. Which is probably the important take-away. Everyone has to find their fulfillment, and while some don’t always reach it, it never comes from a force outside yourself. Rebecca Houseknecht has already hung up her pointe shoes at the Washington Ballet, to pursue a college degree in speech pathology. Appearances don’t always hold the whole picture.

At the same time, I cannot wait to see Aran Bell headline the American Ballet Company as a principle in eight or nine years.

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