Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Bess Kargman.
Tutus, tears and triumphs?
First Position is a very enjoyable and inspiring documentary about the annual Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most elite and prestigious dance competitions in the world. Thousands of hopefuls, aged between eight and 18, try out for prizes including contracts with leading ballet companies and scholarships to some of the top ballet schools in the world. It is a very competitive environment, as the judges are looking for the right combination of body, training, personality, passion, technique and future potential.
First Position is a warm and upbeat examination of talented kids pursuing their life long dream, striving for their big break and coping with enormous pressure of competition. Practice and discipline are paramount. First time filmmaker Bess Kargman is a former ballerina who studied for ten years before retiring at the tender age of fourteen. In this film she follows six young hopefuls through the competition, and we gain some insight into their dedication, the long hours spent training, rehearsing and perfecting their techniques, as well as their aspirations and sacrifices. There is also inevitably some disappointments along the way.
Kargman has chosen her subjects well and she follows their journey over the course of twelve months. Exuberant eleven-year-old Aran Bell comes from a military family based in Italy, and is determined to succeed. Michaela DePrince was born in Sierra Leone during the bloody civil war, and was adopted by a white Jewish American family who support her dreams. Joan Sebastian pursues dance as a way of escaping the poverty and lack of opportunities back home in his native Columbia. Sakoto is the mother of both Jules and Miko Fogarty, and is obsessed with having her children succeed. A telling moment comes when Jules admits that he doesn’t particularly like ballet but is only doing it to please his mother. There is also Rebecca Houseknecht, the spoiled suburban princess/cheerleader attired in pink, for whom dance is a passion.
Kargman also edited the film along with Kate Amend, and she balances the individual journeys beautifully/ Kargman suffuses the film with an element of suspense as it leads up to the make or break Grand Final in New York. She develops a great sympathy for her subjects, and we the audience become emotionally engaged in their individual stories, their triumphs and failures. Like the documentary Spellbound, which followed a number of children competing in an annual spelling bee, First Position is an emotionally engaging documentary that explores a number of touching human stories with compassion and unrestrained joy.
The film has been beautifully shot by veteran documentary cinematographer Nick Higgins (Countdown To Zero, etc), who captures some stunning images.
This is much more enjoyable and involving than those popular “reality” dance shows on television! Fans of classical dance will certainly enjoy First Position, probably more so than they would have enjoyed the disturbing psychological drama of Black Swan. But this superb documentary has more than enough to appeal to the casual viewer as well. Highly recommended.