Plugged In

October 19, 2011



Youth America Grand Prix
has been a launching pad for ballet careers since 1999. The dance world has known this for years, and now, the rest of the world can get a glimpse of its talent, too. First Position, a documentary following exceptional students from their home studios to the 2010 YAGP finals in New York City, not only shows the high-stakes nature of the competition, but the passion that these young dancers have for their art. Luckily, the tears and shots of bloody feet are kept to a minimum—we see these kids actually having fun.

The performances at YAGP provide a narrative and run the gamut from triumphant to heartbreaking, but the film’s real appeal lies in the dancers’ backstories. Among the six students, we meet the incredibly precocious 11-year-old Aran Bell, an American living in Naples who makes the hour-and-a-half trip to Rome every day to study with Denys Ganio (the scene of Ganio smoking while teaching a class in rapid-fire French is wickedly wonderful). Rebecca Houseknecht, a 17-year-old Maryland Youth Ballet student who loves pink and gave up cheerleading for ballet, is focused on getting hired by one of the many companies offering apprenticeships at YAGP. The very handsome Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, whose shy smile and phone calls home to his parents in Colombia have you rooting for him, worships Carlos Acosta and hopes to get a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. Miko (10) and Jules (12) Fogarty, who train at the Diablo Ballet apprentice program, start out as a brother/sister package, but Jules just isn’t interested in the art that his sister loves so much. Michaela DePrince, a talented 14-year-old from the Rock School who was adopted from war-torn Sierra Leone, battles tendonitis at the finals.

The documentary was directed and produced by filmmaker Bess Kargman. In 2009, after noticing a group of young dancers outside New York’s Skirball Center, she followed them into the competition and was so inspired by what she saw that she quit her job to make this film. By all accounts, it received a standing ovation at a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Kargman has managed to make a film that not only documents the Herculean amount of work and sacrifice that it takes to become a professional ballet dancer, but also conveys why a teenager would choose that life.

First Position
screens at the DOC NYC festival this month. See for additional showings. —Kina Poon


Rebecca Houseknecht backstage at YAGP. Photo by Bess Kargman, Courtesy First Position Films.

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Happy Feet
, the 2006 Warner Brothers’ animated flick that capitalized on the magical combination of tap dancing and adorable penguins, is back for a second installment. But these aren’t the chivalrous penguins of Mary Poppins. Instead, Happy Feet Two’s flightless birds groove to a fresher beat: Wade Robson’s. As the choreographer of the title dance sequence, Robson brings his quirky style to the sequel, set to hit theaters nationwide November 18.

Happy Feet Two
stars tap-dancing penguin Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood/body of Savion Glover), who this time around must save his penguin community from a danger threatening the South Pole and convince his son Erik that dancing is cool.

Robson’s a two-time Emmy-winning choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance with extensive commercial credits, but he doesn’t have a tap background. So, with help from Aussie choreographer Dein Perry, he and Glover spent a few days working together in the motion capture studio in Sydney, getting Mumble’s hoffer hoofer moves down. “I was excited to bring my funkiness to these penguins,” Robson says. “In the first couple of visits, I did a few, simple motion-capture tests. I put on the suit and was able to see myself live, as a penguin.”

And like Dick van Dyke, who pulls the seat of his pants way down to match the penguins’ moves in Poppins, Robson had to work within limitations when choreographing for the birds. The dancers could not open their legs past shoulder-width, or kick higher or bend farther than 45 degrees, forward or back. “By the end of the sequence, I thought, ‘Man, if I have to come up with one more penguin movement…’ ” remembers Robson. “It’s quite a challenge to find enough variation within that range.”

Robson hired 15 dancers (the maximum that can be captured at one time) to work on the film. And if you look closely, you’ll find him as one of the penguins: Atticus. —Jenny Dalzell

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If Moscow in November is not your cup of tea (brrr), you can see the newly renovated Bolshoi Theatre from the comfort of your local movie theater when Ballet in Cinema screens Grigorivich’s The Sleeping Beauty on Nov. 20. The performance, a live broadcast, will give viewers a glimpse of the new theater, which has been closed for renovation since 2005. This Beauty has a new outfit to match her new home—redesigned sets by Ezio Frigerio. See

The interior of the new Bolshoi Theatre during renovation. Photo by Damir Yusupov, Courtesy Emerging Pictures.




Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins

By Yael Tamar Lewin

Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

362 pages. Illustrated. $37.

Janet Collins, the first black dancer to perform with the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, dazzled audiences and critics in the cold-war era, when racial integration became a powerful American issue. Collins, by being very good at both ballet and modern dance, blazed a trail for generations to follow—including her cousin Carmen de Lavallade.


She led a peripatetic life, geographically and as a practitioner of various art forms. An irrepressible mover from her early childhood in New Orleans, she was also, as a young woman living in Los Angeles, gifted in visual arts and a thoughtful writer. Dedicated and disciplined, she could also be impetuous; an elopement when she was 22 led quickly to divorce. This and some professional disappointments resulted in her being committed to a state hospital, where, without her knowledge, her tubes were tied. Late in life she was diagnosed as bipolar.

At 16, she auditioned for Leonide Massine when he brought the Ballet Russe to Los Angeles. She remembers him telling her she was a very fine, strong dancer, but that to take her into the troupe he’d have to paint her white. “You wouldn’t want that, would you?” he asked her. She said no, and then walked numbly out of the theater, sat down in front of the library, “and I cried, and cried, and cried.”

But she persevered, studying art and performing with Lester Horton’s troupe in the Hollywood Bowl and joining Katherine Dunham’s company. At 31 she moved to New York, landed a lead dancing role in a Broadway musical, and, in 1951, was hired by the Metropolitan Opera, the first “Negro” to join the troupe.

In 1969, after performing and teaching and reaffirming her Catholic faith, Collins left New York, first for Los Angeles and then for Seattle, where she concentrated on visual art.

Born in 1917, she died in Fort Worth, Texas, in 2003, while cooperating with Yael Tamar Lewin on this unusual book. Opening with chapters from her unfinished autobiography, it gradually melds into more traditional biography. Lewin assiduously researched Collins’ life, the critical response to her art, and her evolution as she aged. “As a result,” Lewin concludes, “a life has been saved.” Indeed. —Elizabeth Zimmer

iPhone/iPad apps

From ballet to Broadway, sometimes a role requires more than movement. If you’re thrown into a part where you have to (gulp) sing onstage, or you’re looking to improve your voice for auditions, the Singing for Dancers app can help you get in touch with your inner Sutton Foster. Vocal coach Liz Caplan, who counts Cheyenne Jackson and Neil Patrick Harris among her students, created the app to allow dancers to build confidence in the privacy of their own homes.

There are two versions of the app, for men and for women. After instructional videos guide the dancer through a physical and facial warm-up, it moves into the “Work-Out,” focusing on specific skills such as power, tone, and singing when you’re congested. $9.99. See —K. P.