Future ballet stars shine in irresistible dance doc ‘First Position’
Anyone addicted to Smash, or any of the so-called “reality” talent shows on TV, will find First Position irresistible. Bess Kargman’s suspenseful and entertaining documentary captures the real-life drama of exceptional teen ballet students from around the world training for the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix dance-off in New York City.
The YAGP is not exactly a competition, in the sense that the last contestant standing wins all the glory. Instead, it’s a showcase that allows all the young dancers who qualify for the finals to perform in front of a panel of 30 judges representing ballet companies from all over the world. Their five minutes onstage might earn these kids a medal, a scholarship to a ballet school, or a professional contract—or send them back to the barre in obscurity. Kargman doesn’t impose a narrative on the film; she lets the dancers, their families and trainers tell their own stories. But as her focus narrows to six finalists, the filmmaker invites us to ponder the collision of childhood with the grueling, terrible beauty and exaltation of the ballet life.
One can only imagine the thousands of hours of film Kargman and her globetrotting crew must have shot in the act of choosing their “stars.” Every year, more than 5,000 dancers between the ages of 9 and 19 enter the YAGP, out of which only 300 make it into the finals. Kargman casts a wide net to come up with a handful of youthful contenders who exemplify what one judge describes as the ideal and necessary combination for a professional dancer: “Beauty, training, passion, and personality.”
Eleven-year-old Aran Bell lives in an American military family stationed outside Naples, Italy. Small and poised, barely on the cusp of puberty, Aran travels two hours to Rome every day to train with his French coach. Seventeen-year-old Rebecca Houseknecht, a sunny blonde in pink princess mode from suburban Maryland, has opted to skip college to pursue a professional career in a belt-tightening era when more dancers are being cut from companies than hired. Miko Fogarty, 12, and her kid brother, Jules, live in Palo Alto with their Japanese mother and Australian father. When the family moves to Walnut Creek to be closer to the kids’ Russian dance coach, Pop Fogarty moves his tech business as well, uprooting his employees for the sake of his kids’ potential careers.
At 14, Michaela De Prince has survived more than most people can even imagine. Born in civil war-torn Sierra Leone, she lost her parents at age three, and was placed in an orphanage. She and another girl were adopted by the loving De Princes of Philadelphia. “We came to America and everybody cared about us,” Michaela recalls. “It was amazing.” As her mother spends her evenings dyeing the “flesh-colored” straps and insets of Michaela’s tutus brown to match her daughter’s skin color, Michaela speaks eloquently about wanting to change racial perceptions that black dancers are too athletic and not graceful enough for ballet, hoping to become “a delicate black dancer who does classical ballet.” She succeeds with two of the film’s loveliest performances.
On the other hand, Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, from a poor village in Colombia, looks every inch the lithe, powerful classical dancer he is. He rooms with another young Latino dancer in Queens, New York, training with a Spanish coach, cooking rice and beans every day, and hoping to make his parents proud. And the wild card in the group is little Gaya Bommer Yemini, an 11-year-old Israeli girl; she and Aran goof around together at the semi-finals in Sicily, but she’s all business onstage, delivering a show-stopping modern dance routine.
Along the way we see the sheer expense of costumes, classes, and toe shoes; we ponder “foot-stretchers” and other torture devices, and consider what these kids and their families sacrifice for their dreams. (Joan lives away from home for a year to train in New York City; Michaela determines to dance in the finals despite a bout of crippling tendonitis.) But it’s all thrown into perspective when these young talents take the stage, in a finale as nailbiting as a thriller, and as euphoric as the kids’ dreams.
★★★1/2 (out of four)
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With Joan Sebastian Zamora, Aran Bell and Michaela De Prince. A film by Bess Kargman. A Sundance Selects release. (Not rated) 90 minutes.