First Position: Film Review

First Position PR Portrait - P 2011

First Position PR Portrait - P 2011

Young dancers compete for the big time in this emotionally engaging if familiar documentary.

Bess Kargman’s documentary follows six young dancers from around the world as they prepare for one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world.

Bess Kargman’s film chronicling the efforts of six young dancers as they rigorously prepare for a prestigious, all-important competition hews to the by-now-familiar template for what has become a veritable documentary sub-genre. Cross-cutting between its subjects while detailing their often dramatic backstories, First Position overcomes its predictable elements thanks to the inherent visual drama of watching children strain their bodies to the limit in obsessive pursuit of their goals.

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The filmmaker has cannily chosen her diverse group of subjects, who include Aran, the son of a American Navy doctor stationed in Naples; Michaela, adopted from a Sierra Leone orphanage by an elderly Jewish couple; siblings Jules and Miko, whose Japanese tiger mother is determined to make them ballet stars; Joan, a handsome sixteen-year-old from Columbia who has traveled by himself to New York to study dance; and Rebecca, a perky, blonde cheerleader type whose all-American beauty and lithe physicality make her seem destined for stardom.

The film depicts their arduous efforts to prepare for the Youth American Grand Prix, an annual competition for dancers ages 9-19 held in New York City that is judged by representatives from more than thirty major dance companies and academies. The stakes are high, with successful showings providing big career opportunities including scholarships and professional contracts. But the odds are daunting as well: out of some 5,000 hopefuls competing in semi-finals held cities around the globe, only 300 make it to the big event.

Although the film dutifully makes note of the difficult realities of attaining a professional dance career—one commentator makes repeated references to the woeful lack of job opportunities—it’s a mostly upbeat, inspirational affair that doesn’t delve too deeply into its milieu’s more problematical aspects. Like such similarly themed efforts as Mad Hot Ballroom, Make Believe and Spellbound, it culminates in the big competition, with viewers having the cathartic opportunity to root for their personal favorites as they strut their stuff.  

Opened May 4 (Sundance Selects)
Production: First Position Films
Director/producer: Bess Kargman
Executive producer: Rose Caiola
Director of photography: Nick Higgins
Editors: Bess Kargman, Kate Amend
Music: Chris Hajian
No rating, 94 min.