In 'First Position,' young ballet dancers bend and leap to compete

On a recent Sunday morning, at an hour when many a teenager is still prone in bed, Adam Bernstein, 15, and Eli Gruska, 13, were lying face down on the floor of a Los Angeles ballet studio. Both boys would soon be heading to New York City for the biggest ballet competition in the country.

They and the others in this all-boys class were awaiting instructions from Marat Daukayev, former principal dancer withRussia'sfamed Kirov Ballet (now the ballet of the Mariinsky Theatre).

Daukayev begins his boys' class with sets of push-ups, not pliés. The boys count to 10 in a different language. Daukayev shouts out before each set: "French!" "Spanish!" "Japanese!" "Russian!" "Tartar!" (Daukayev's native tongue.) "Armenian!" "Hebrew!"

The boys know them all.

We're multi-tasking, Daukayev's wife whispers to a visitor. Multi-tasking is a good way to summarize the existence of any young student who wants to make a career of dancing.

On the list of priorities is the Youth America Grand Prix, an international ballet competition founded in 1999 in New York City. There the boys would be joining the country's best and brightest, ages 9 to 19, to vie for hefty scholarships from Youth America, which has become a game changer in the dance world.

Started by former Bolshoi Ballet dancers Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev — he is a soloist with American Ballet Theatre — Youth America Grand Prix has grown to become the largest and one of the most influential youth ballet competitions in the world, with more than 25,000 participants, and $2 million in scholarships distributed, according to its website. Representatives from leading ballet companies attend the finals in New York City every year, scouting for dancers. The 2012 final round was last week. (Results can be found at http://www.yagp.org.

Almost overnight, Youth America Grand Prix created a central ballet marketplace, and just as suddenly it upped the ante even higher on ballet's infamously demanding training regimen. Competitions, though controversial, do have their supporters. They argue that contests give American students valuable performing experience, which they generally lack in comparison to their European counterparts.

On the other hand, students can have a professional career without competing. But an increasing number of students feel compelled to do so, and it can turn their lives and those of their families upside down.

How much so is demonstrated in a new documentary film,"First Position,"which opens Friday. Director Bess Kargman spent one year chronicling the lives of six exceptional students from diverse backgrounds as they prepared for the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix. Kargman said her goal for the film was "to provide intimate access into the lives of these dancers … who are extremely dedicated to ballet and come together at a competition. The competition is just what brings them together."

In poignant scenes, some of which are hilarious, others heartbreaking, the film shows how children focus unstintingly on their preparation, pushing themselves toward a perfection that ballet demands. The movie depicts the injuries, the hours in class, the parents — some selfless, some pushy — the costs, the triumphs and the failures.

These same stories are being played out every day across Southern California by thousands of students. Their routines and their dreams are the same as those depicted in "First Position."

Gruska, a polite blond from Encino, takes lessons six days a week, Wednesday through Monday. He takes three classes on Fridays — the boys-only, pas de deux (duets with girls) and a private lesson. His favorite company is the Royal Ballet of England, and he hopes to be accepted there one day.

"I feel like [even if] I'm nervous in the wings, the second I walk out on stage, I feel like I don't have to be nervous anymore and I'm at home," he explained.

Both Gruska and his classmate Bernstein, a freshman at the Los Angeles County High School of the Arts who studies every day, are willing competitors. They do it for the stage experience, they said, and because they want to be seen by the ballet scouts. But they say there is a big difference between dancing in a competition and for a performance like the "Nutcracker."

"In a performance, you get to rely on your whole company and you're pushing all together to achieve something. But competing it's just you and usually there's lots of negative energy at a competition. Not a lot," Gruska said, suddenly softening his stance. "Actually, Youth America Grand Prix is a pretty good one. Like some competitions are just terrible...."

Bernstein interjected: "People crying in the wings."

The Daukayevs estimated that it costs each family $6,000 to send a child to New York City for the Young American week. In addition to airfare, hotels and meals are the costs of renting studios for rehearsals, the costumes and specially commissioned solos.

Eli Gruska's mother, Denise, estimated the family might spend more than $20,000 a year on ballet-related expenses. But it's worth it, she said. A huge fan of the art form, Denise Gruska was so upset by her son's early experiences as the lone male at a different ballet school that she wrote "The Only Boy in Ballet Class," a picture book "to empower boys who dance."

"I feel very strongly that studying ballet is beneficial for everyone whether you become professional or not," she said. "It keeps you incredibly fit, it teaches you discipline and, interestingly enough, delayed gratification, which is rare these days with all the instant media crowding our lives and vying for our attention. The joy these kids get from dancing is ineffable. And as a parent, you gladly move heaven and earth to give it to them."

 

On another day, in Orange County's Southland Ballet Academy, Tyler Donatelli, a wisp of a 15-year-old advanced student, was practicing her contemporary dance solo, even though she had an upper respiratory infection and a swollen left eyelid.

Her dance begins — unfortunately, given her medical condition — with Donatelli walking backward while in a deep, head-to-butt backbend. She stopped from time to time, gulping in big breaths. Her sympathetic coach cut the rehearsal short. But it was decided that another practice would have to be squeezed in before she leaves for the Youth America finals in Manhattan.

"Figure out what works best for you two," a resigned Chrissy Donatelli, Tyler's mother, told her daughter and coach, adding with some mom humor: "The car will drive you here."

Donatelli won the top prize in the Los Angeles semifinal round. She was also a finalist in the ballet category for the Spotlight Awards, the Music Center's performing arts scholarship competition.

Donatelli, a quiet girl who lights up on stage, recently opted to continue her high school education online. This has become more common among pre-professionals because their training routines clash with normal high school schedules.

"I never have to tell Tyler to do her homework. Her iPod has classical music on it. She's a different kid," Chrissy Donatelli said.

All of these elite students, she added: "They're special. They are responsible, kind, driven. They live in a bubble … but it's a great bubble."

Tyler said her goal is to get into a "good company." And what would that be?

"A good company to me would be they have a good repertoire. They do all the classics, but they also do different contemporary works. Even some [George] Balanchinepieces. I know it's good to be well-rounded."

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