First Position journeys inside the cut-throat world of ballet
A documentary by Bess Kargman. Rated G.
It’s not quite as riveting as 2009’s Only When I Dance—about two Brazilian teens facing ballet competitions—and a couple of films about aspirants to the Paris Opera Ballet. First Position, though, journeys far enough inside the lives of toe-pointing hopefuls to give you a strong sense of the form’s pleasures and, especially, pains.
Perhaps the more obvious parallel is with Spellbound, another doc about young Americans of diverse backgrounds going for a difficult kind of glory. The kids here certainly take more ribbing than do spelling-bee types, but 11-year-old Aran Bell and 12-year-old Miko Fogarty are too serious about ballet to notice the jibes of their peers. Miko’s little brother, Jules, also takes ballet classes, and he endures much eye-rolling dismay from a Russian coach who recognizes that only one of the siblings has talent.
Elsewhere, muscular 17-year-old Joan Sebastian Zamora left Colombia to study in New York, while the same-aged Rebecca House-knecht takes a privileged-princess approach to the art. Most compelling is 14-year-old Michaela Deprince, who lost her family in strife-torn Sierra Leone and is further burdened by a pigmentation disorder and, more crucially, creaky stereotypes about black ballet dancers. She is doted upon by an elderly Philadelphia couple, and the graceful Michaela’s resolve—further challenged by inevitable injuries—offer the film’s most inspiring moments.
All the youngsters, plus a precocious Israeli girl who takes a shine to Aran, are headed to an important New York competition that may lead to offers from prestigious dance companies and schools. The film could have offered some insights into the validity of these high-pressure star parades, which are controversial in the ballet world. And it overcompresses the kids’ performances, denying us a chance to see how good they actually are. Subbing corny synthesizer music for some of the stuff they are dancing to is another misstep for first-time director Bess Kargman, a former dancer. Enough lands right, though, to keep the movie en pointe.
Watch the trailer for First Position.