For most folks, the film “First Position” will be a rare glimpse into the world of competitive youth ballet. “First Position,” scheduled to open late May in Scottsdale and early June in Tucson, follows the adventures of six dancers as they compete in the Youth America Grand Prix — the “largest competition that awards full scholarships to top ballet schools.”
But Jessica Phillips, who has danced professionally with Ballet Arizona as an apprentice since 2009, has already gone behind the scenes of the prestigious competition — competing several times as a soloist and as part of an ensemble from the Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre in Texas.
Phillips began dance lessons when she was eight years old, but says she “didn’t take it seriously” until she was 12. That’s when a teacher suggested Phillips enter the Youth America Grand Prix, and Phillips was game. “I remember being so nervous,” she recalls, “knowing that I’d been working for months and months and months.” It all turns on a single dance, and anything can happen.
“Dancers have good days and bad days like any job or day in life,” muses Phillips. “The day of the competition there’s so much stress thinking about all the sacrifices you’ve made.” No matter how well you do, she says, you never feel like it was exactly how you wanted it to be. “You can always be better,” insists Phillips.
Phillips participated in the Youth America Grand Prix when Rebecca Houseknecht, one of the film’s six featured dancers, was competing as well — and the two became friends while housed together during their competition days. Phillips recalls admiring Houseknecht because she “really puts herself out there” as a competitor.
Still, Phillips says it isn’t all about winning. “It’s a learning process,” she adds. Though recognized for being in the top 12 during her third year of competition, Phillips went home feeling something more — the inspiration of seeing other beautiful dancers and they ways they work. Also a new sense of her own unique strengths and style.
The world of competitive dance isn’t for everyone — but Phillips recommends it for dancers who are are passionate and like performing. Especially those who dream of being a ballerina. Phillips recalls running across some not-so-nice dancers and stage moms, but says she met plenty of folks who were “sweet and kind.” Her best advice? “Don’t compare yourself with others.”
“Stay focused on yourself,” suggests Phillips. “Everyone has their own journey.” It’s self-destructive, she says, to start “freaking out” over people you have no control over. Phillips recalls listening to music before taking the stage because it “helps to get the stress out.” Whatever the outcome, competing “gets your name out there.” And the travel is another plus.
“First Position” promises to take audiences on a “yearlong journey around the world” — following both the struggles and successes of its central characters. Another dance film, opening May 18 in NYC, offers a behind-the-scenes look at one of the country’s longest-running dance festival. It’s called “Never Stand Still: Dancing at Jacob’s Pillow.”
Those who’ve tired of “Dance Moms” divas can get a glimpse into the world of competitive ballet when the CW Network (in cooperation with the BBC) premieres a reality TV show titled “Breaking Pointe” on May 31 — which features Ballet West in Utah, headed by artistic director Adam Sklute.
I’m eager to see both films, and the new series — but hope folks who enjoy them will take dance appreciation a step further by enjoying live dance performance in their communities. Dance on the big or small screen is lovely. Dance on stage is magnificent.
Coming up: Tackling bigotry with plays, poems and songs