A popular and critical success at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, the touching documentary First Position is of interest not only to ballet fans but to anyone who has ever faced tremendous odds to make a dream come true. This is a film of charm and fire about six enormously talented ballet students (seven, actually, but one drops out) on their way to the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest ballet competition that awards full scholarships and job contracts to aspiring dancers ages 9 to 19. More than 5,000 hopefuls enter the semifinals held in 15 cities around the globe. Only 300 of them make it to the finals in New York, where judges from 30 major dance companies reward or reject them, one by one, changing their lives forever.
The future virtuosos First Position focuses on are some of the most likeable, passionate and dedicated kids you will ever meet. Aran, the 11-year-old son of a U.S. Navy doctor who lives on a military base near Naples and travels two hours every day to a dance class in Rome, has been knocking himself out at the bar since he was 4. He is a pint-sized Baryshnikov. Michaela, 14, was brought up in an orphanage in West Africa after her parents were shot by rebels and her dance instructor’s arms and legs were severed before her eyes. After being adopted by an elderly Jewish couple in Philadelphia who invest their lives in her talent and happiness, Michaela believes her entire existence is a miracle and works diligently to prove black dancers can be as agile and technically flawless as traditional white ballerinas in pink tutus. Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, is a handsome boy from Colombia driven by the need for success whose private tutor is a former dancer with American Ballet Theater and whose impoverished parents constantly remind him by long-distance phone of his responsibility to help his less fortunate younger siblings at home. Rebecca, 17, is a beautiful, blond, all-American princess from Maryland who seems to have it all, but ends up working twice as hard as the others to excel. Miko Fogarty, a 12-year-old girl from Palo Alto, Calif., who is half-Japanese, has a stage mother who dreams of turning her and her little brother Jules into professionals, but Jules lacks his sister’s drive and ambition. Gaya, 11, is the daughter of a famous Israeli choreographer and an expressive dancer with the rare emotional facial intensity most ballerinas lack. (Think Nora Kaye in her prime.) First Position catalogues their hopes, sweat, pain and joy as we get to know them personally. By the end, there isn’t a single youngster you won’t be rooting for like members of your own family.
Bess Kargman, a former dancer, directs with sensitivity and care. She knows her subject and spares no details in showing the myriad ways dancers sacrifice their lives for their art. It’s punishing, it’s expensive, the travel and costumes and private trainers and tutors add up to a costly extravagance. You need physique, technique, personality and passion. You also have to count calories, stay thin to the point of invisibility, avoid practically everything that normal kids eat, do and enjoy. One of the most entertaining things in the film is the candor with which the principals discuss the loss of their so-called “normal” childhoods. You get the nervous anxiety they live with, the expectations and fears of disappointment experienced by their parents, and the heartbreak when their children fail or quit. You also get the creams, liniments, balms, salves and other medications to treat torn ligaments, stress fractures and constant injuries that can end careers. There’s a lot to absorb. More than just another docudrama about winners and losers like so many sports movies about underdog teams that turn their losing streak around to win trophies and pennants, First Position is about the lives of the dancers as well as the onstage Terpsichore. It’s a triumph, in more ways than one.
Running time 90 minutes
Directed by Bess Kargman
Starring Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer Yemini and Michaela Deprince