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

The documentary shows performers preparing for the Youth America Grand Prix. Students in Southern California have similar experiences.

April 29, 2012|By Laura Bleiberg, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Adam Bernstein, 15, top, and Eli Gruska, 13, demonstrate a ballet move at the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet.
Adam Bernstein, 15, top, and Eli Gruska, 13, demonstrate a ballet move at… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)

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

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.

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