directed by Bess Kargman
reviewed by Carmel Morgan
Go see “First Position” if you’re a dance lover. It’s ok to bring friends along who are less enthusiastic about dance than you are because they’ll love the film, too. “First Position” follows six young dancers (with a significant appearance by a seventh) as they prepare for the annual Youth America Grand Prix, a worldwide ballet competition. The film has all of the elements of a good sports movie. It’s about a physical competition, after all. It’s got the drama of injuries, and the pressure of needing to do your best at a particular moment in time in order to win.
The fact that the film focuses on a ballet competition might stop some from seeing it. Don’t let this stop you! I have very mixed feeling about ballet competitions, but I’ll set those feelings aside for the purpose of this review. At any rate, these competitions are a reality, and they do turn out star quality dancers now and then. Is it ugly to score ballet dancers? Certainly, but as much as I wish ballet were purely about artistry, there’s no denying it’s competitive out there these days for the few professional positions available. The competitions have big negatives, but one big positive is that they provide young dancers with a chance to show their stuff and be discovered. For better or worse, the ballet competitions like the Youth America Grand Prix are a vehicle for promoting dance.
The success of “First Position” has less to do with the appeal of the ballet competition than the undeniable appeal of the dancers that the film features. Apparently someone pointed first time feature documentary film director and former ballet student Bess Kargman toward some dancers who would make rewarding subjects. Indeed, I fell in love with nearly all of them! The excitement they have for dance is genuine and heartfelt. You can’t help but want them to reach their dancing dreams, and with the determination most of them exhibit, you believe it’s possible.
Anyone who studied dance seriously as a child will identify with the young dancers in the film. There’s something a little creepy about their adult-like dedication. These are little souls who live for dance, and they do leave normalcy behind in pursuit of their passion. I missed a lot of sleepovers and birthday parties in my dancing days, too. But I gained a lot by working hard and performing, which I loved to do. In the film, you see the sacrifices families make for their young dancers – long commutes for training, exorbitant fees for costumes and classes, home schooling, changes in dinner menus, etc. You also witness the sacrifices of the dancers themselves, and it’s not just the incredible time commitment. Their bodies take a bashing, as do their psyches at times. These young dancers demonstrate toughness of the sort that it takes to make a career in ballet.
Another thing that most dance students will recognize is the strict foreign tongued ballet teacher. Did we not all have one of those? The teachers are actually kind, but they’re also unapologetically demanding. Sometimes they grab a neck to stretch it, or smack a stomach to put it in place. Also familiar are the bandaged, misshapen, and discolored toes. I had not seen the torture device called a “foot stretcher” before, but I will never forget the pain of pointe shoes. “First Position” also thoughtfully shows some of the dancers eating junk food, which might be a relief, but it also shows the mother of Miko Forgarty (age 12) explaining that the non-fat yogurt in her household is reserved for her children, while she and her husband eat the low fat kind.
After the film screening I attended, people in the audience were arguing about which dancer was their favorite. Don’t ask me to choose. It’s a difficult task! I particularly loved Aran Bell (age 11 at the time of the film), but I also loved Joan Sebastian Zamora (age 16, from Colombia) and thought he had real star potential. Yet the young dancer I may have cheered on the most was Michaela DePrince (age 14). If you see the film, you’ll understand why. She began life in Sierra Leone, where she was orphaned by war. At the orphanage, she fell in love with a magazine cover photo of a white ballerina bedecked in pink tulle, and she decided that’s what she wanted to be. An unlikely start for a ballerina, for sure. Michaela impresses with her guts and drive. You see her take momentous risks in order to reach her goal of attaining a coveted scholarship, and you worry for her. When she finds a way to triumph, how can you not be stirred?
The film takes pains to show that the male dancers aren’t sissies. Aran has a BB gun, and both he and handsome Joan Sebastian have girlfriends. It isn’t completely clear how into the smitten Gaya Bonner Yemini (also age 11) Aran is, though. Nevertheless, their friendship (she’s Israeli, and he’s an American Navy kid living in Italy) is one of the highlights of the film. Gaya glows around him, and her sincere adoration is beyond cute. Oh, to be 11 years old and have a crush on a talented blonde boy who loves dance as much as you do!
“First Position” is entertaining. It’s not a perfect film, and it lacks a certain artistic touch, but its true stories of kids who excel at ballet are inspiring. I wouldn’t count out seeing some of their names in reviews in the near future.
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