It’s hard not to be won over by the girls and women of the callisthenics community. Callisthenics, it turns out, is uniquely Australian and developed with migrant populations as a way to promote physical fitness and gracefulness for young girls. Callisthenics is like a cross between gymnastics, ballet and synchronised swimming and (almost exclusively) girls and young women train and compete in solo and group events. The pinnacle, is the annual competition at Royal South Street in Ballarat, in particular the Most Graceful Girl prize.
This documentary was introduced by the filmmakers and they asked the audience to raise their hands if they were, or had been, involved in callisthenics. Around 80% raised their hands. There were rows of girls with makeup and hair in immaculate buns, ready for their demonstration performances at the MIFF Festival Lounge after the film. In the queue for the toilet afterward, I chatted to a mum who had three kids who had been in the film, including a boy. I asked if there were many boys involved in callisthenics and she said there were two but they’ve both since quit. I’m not surprised at this. As The Ground we Won was an exploration of masculinity, Graceful Girls was a surprising and sometimes disturbing look at a sport (or art form) that has been created around a traditional ideal of femininity.
Like any good documentary, this one focuses on three people – Brianna who has competed many times for Most Graceful Girl but has never come first, Dianne who, with her mother, was the founder of the Regent callisthenics school and Brooke, Dianne’s daughter and the one trying to keep the school going. It becomes clear that Dianne is a formidable presence and is completely dedicated to callisthenics. She is a tough teacher and is most hard on Brooke but under her leadership, the Regent school won year after year at South Street and she has done much to progress the art form to what it is today. Brooke is also dedicated but has an emerging career in musical theatre, which she clearly loves, and this stops her from dedicating every part of her life to callisthenics, much to her mother’s disapproval. The repartee and dynamics between these two are the highlight of the film and you recognise the push and pull of the mother/daughter relationship.
I struggled with the excess of callisthenics. Every performance must be elaborately costumed with wigs and hairpieces, false eyelashes and fake tan, sequins and props. On the really young girls, this has the disturbing look of the beauty pageant scene, and Brooke acknowledges that this may be contributing to the declining numbers of participants. The cost must also be astronomical for parents, although there were some lovely scenes of the mothers sewing and glueing together, driven to make their daughters happy and finding community in the process.
The style of performance also grated with me, particularly in the solo and aesthetic sections. Wide smile, pensive look, where is my hair, I’m surprised, I’m shy, I’m sleepy now – watch the film, you’ll know what I mean. It’s the simpering, passive, pleasing version of femininity and it seems anachronistic and at odds with the obvious power and athleticism of these women.