The world of ballet largely exists in somewhat rareified air, and doesn't often enter the wider pop cultural sphere, and thus it's a pleasant surprise that Bess Kargman's "First Position" is so immediately engaging. A documentary about a ballet contest might not seem inherently dramatic or even interesting for anyone who doesn't particularly enjoy dance, but by finding the human stories and letting the often breathtaking physicality speak for itself, "First Position" is a simple, but effective portrait of ambition and determination in an art form where the stakes are high and the rewards are few.
The setup is straightforward. Centered around the Youth America Grand Prix, the annual prestigious ballet competition that draws contestants from all over the world and often kickstarts a career for the winners, Kargman pitches the narrative through a handful of unique and undoubtedly talented kids: Aran, 11 years old, an American living in with his parents in Italy; Gaya, 11 years old, from Israel; brother and sister Jules and Miko, 10 and 12 years old, from the United States; 16-year-old Joan from Columbia, studying in the United States; 14-year-old Michaela, born in Sierra Leone, adopted and living in the United States; and all-American, 17-year-old Rebecca. And really, it's this excellent melange of individuals from around the world that not only adds texture to the story, but quickly impresses that ballet is very much a worldwide art form, touching on the lives of all kinds of people, coming to them in different ways.
For Michaela, born at the height of the civil war in Sierra Leone, it was seeing the face of a dancer on the cover of a magazine in the orphanage where she was staying, that planted the seed, and gave her a dream to aspire to, should she find her way out of that desperate situation. And her new life came courtesy of an unbelievably selfless Jewish couple in New York City, unlikely parents Elaine and Charles, whose bond to her is as strong as if she was born to them. For Joan, his mother was a dancer, who expected to have a daughter who would follow in her footsteps. But it was her son that would not only do so, but also become the great hope for their family, who still live in a country where opportunities are few and far between. As for Gaya, her mother was a choreographer but it was actually seeing Aran dance (who is really quite a wonder to behold) that made her take the craft far more seriously, and it wasn't long before she was one of the best in her age group.
Among the many threads that come though, is certainly the role of the parents, who are often sacrificing themselves, their lives and their finances, all for the potential of their children. When we first meet Elaine, she's up late dyeing small strips of fabric brown to match the skin tone of Michaela, to fit pieces on her various tutus and outfits, because there simply aren't many black ballet performers and most costumes are designed with white women in mind. Meanwhile, Aran's military father shares that in order to stay in Italy so his son could get the best training he volunteered himself to do a six month tour of duty in Kuwait. These parents represent the best kind of support a mother and father give; it's whole, but not overbearing, with the love of their child informing their decisions first and foremost. But it's Jules and Miko's mother Sakoto who is on the opposite end. Obsessive to an almost unhealthy degree, she openly admits that any mistakes her daughter makes, she blames herself, while allowing Miko to claim any and all successes. Without spoiling anything, a small twist later on, reduces an oblivious Sakoto to some overwrought tears, but a quick moment later, we find out that the unrelenting drive for the success of her children isn't so easily replaced.
But it's the kids themselves who truly make "First Position" so compelling and relatable. Gearing up for the Youth America Grand Prix, we follow them through the build up to the event, going through training that is at times grueling and surprising. Kargman doesn't hide the absurd physical exertions ballet demands of its dancers and the high risk of injury, that could be a career ender, even if you're only out of the game a few months. But their dedication is hugely admirable, and familiar for anyone who has pursued a passion. And the payoff, watching them perform and dance, is exciting stuff to behold. Even if you don't know a pirouette from an arabesque, it becomes quickly apparent you are watching true talent, and their feats, and the way their bodies movie and undulate across a stage is often gasp-out-loud extraordinary.
"First Position" follows a fairly standard structure over its 90-odd minute runtime, breaking up to follow the journey of each child, culminating in the dance compeition. While Kargman has picked interesting subjects, she is deferential to them and ballet in general, almost to a fault. There is no real conflict in the film (parents, instructors and kids seem to get along swimmingly, all the time), while the financial strain, racial prejudices and other slightly unsavory elements are briefly touched upon, but never really probed as much as they could be. But perhaps that's for a different film. Because at the end of the day, "First Position" is really a celebration of some pretty extraordinary young talent, with big ambitions and limber feet to go with it. You'll find yourself picking a few favorites and rooting for them, and when they do make it on the stage and take their bow, Kargman has delivered a doc worth standing up and applauding for. [B]
"First Position" is now playing limited release. Check the official site for dates, and when it will be playing near you.