Colorado Ballet’s Dana Benton reviews “First Position”

Photo by Terry Shapiro
Dana Benton & Luis Valdes - Traveling Alone. Photo by Terry Shapiro

She stands before a mirror, the night before her debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake; manic thoughts punctured by a sickening feeling in her gut – what’s that? Sprouting feathers!

Nah, it’s probably just some down from her favorite sweater.

For those of you who were intrigued by the film Black Swan, the documentary First Position will be an absolute letdown. This raw, heartfelt, beautifully constructed insight into the daily lives of dancers is sans drama, super creepy moms, and Natalie Portman touching herself in a bathtub (boo hoo).

The Chez Artiste Landmark Theatre in South Denver graciously extended an invitation to screen First Position before it dropped, so I did the natural thing and used it as an opportunity to shamelessly geek out and ask one of my favorite ballerinas to attend the show with me.

Colorado Ballet principal Dana Benton happily accepted my borderline-groupie eager invitation, and, better yet, provided insight into how her experiences as a young dancer compared to those of the dancers featured in the film. Director Bess Kargman followed the daily lives of six talented dancers (ranging in age from nine to nineteen), as they prepare to compete for the Youth America Grand Prix, an international ballet competition held yearly in New York City. Awards at this competition range from medals to scholarships to contracts with various dance companies, and competition is cut-throat.

The film manages to steer clear of the in-your-face, hissy fit, princess crown easy way out, opting instead to showcase the normal side of dancer’s lives – how they cruise on a skateboard down a street, family dinners, loads of tulle. Kargman offers a very direct, down to earth view of the true components of any athlete’s life: the expense, the way it influences the family unit, the sacrifices, the sheer joy and passion of doing what you love.

I thoroughly enjoyed how shamelessly this film encouraged the audience to root for the dancers it showcased. These dancers don’t want to cut through each other’s tutu’s with shards of glass; they truly just want to dance.  At subway stops, in supermarkets, until they almost snap their achilles’ tendon. It’s how I felt about dance, how most dancers feel about dance; it’s what drives the students the film follows to get up at the crack of dawn, throw on leg warmers and listen to Tchaikovsky 80,000 times a day.

Enough with my personal sentiment and sap. The film is awesome. Go see it. But before you do, let the real dancer – Dana Benton – speak:

Did you feel the film was accurate? Why/why not? 
I felt the film was a very accurate portrayal of a dancer’s life and their trials and tribulations. For instance, watching (dancer) Michaela deal with her injury is something we all have to learn to do. It’s so heartbreaking when you’ve been rehearsing and working so hard and then at the last minute you have to decide if you can dance through the pain or not. Then there was Rebecca. She was rehearsing so well and then she went on stage and freaked out. She wasn’t able to do what she had been doing in rehearsals; sometimes that happens! When it does you have to keep going pretend like everything is fine and finish strong. Of course it’s discouraging, but you have to move on so that it doesn’t become mental.
What is your personal experience with ballet competitions? 
I actually have no experience with ballet competitions. I have mixed feelings about them. I think competitions are good for dancers to learn how to dance under pressure, but I think you can get that same effect from doing ballet exams.
What are the greatest sacrifices you feel you have had to make in order to be a dancer? 
Being away from my family has been the thing that I have had to sacrifice the most. At the age of nine I moved away from my family and into a residence at Canada’s National Ballet School. I would only see my parents on the weekends, but most of my classmate’s families lived farther than mine and saw their families far less. I lived at the Ballet School for eight years until I graduated and then moved to another Province to dance with my first company. After one year at my first company I moved to Colorado to join the Colorado Ballet. I’ve been here ever since. My family is still in Canada and it is still hard for me to live so far from them. My sister is on tour at the moment performing in the National Tour of Mary Poppins. I rarely get to see her with our schedules being so different. It’s hard.
If you could have chosen another career, what would it have been? (Or could be in the future….)
I would still choose this career. From early on I knew this is what I wanted to be. I didn’t realize of course at the age of nine how ridiculously hard it would be, but it’s been worth it. When its time to retire from dancing I would love to stay in this field.  I would love to become a Ballet Mistress for a company or be a director of a ballet school and continue teaching.  I teach a lot at the moment and I really enjoy watching my students improve and progress. It’s very inspiring.
Thoughts on how it compared to Black Swan or other dance films?
Comparing Black Swan to First Position is like comparing apples to oranges. The former, in my opinion, was completely fictional whereas First Position was a documentary which stayed very true to what dancers are all about.
Dana Benton, a standout principal dancer with Colorado Ballet, will perform a variety of roles in the upcoming 2012-2013 season. In October, Sleeping Beauty serves as the season opener, followed traditionally by The Nutcracker, and two works in the spring: Ballet MasterWorks (an innovative collection similar to this year’s Tribute), and, lastly, Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project. All of the goodness starts October 5 – visit the Colorado Ballet website for ticket info.
Dance aficionados can catch First Position at The Chez Artiste Theatre –
2800 South Colorado Boulevard, in Denver. Showtimes and ticket prices vary, so be sure to visit the website. The film is appropriate for all ages, and speaks to a wide range of experience with regard to dance. So put on your proverbial (or literal) tutu, throw your hair in a bun, and get into First Position.


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