Young Dancers Vie For First Place at Annual Ballet Competition
Bess Kargman's first feature follows six exceptionally talented young ballet dancers who are preparing to compete at the Youth America Grand Prix, an international ballet competitions for dancers age 9 to 19.
Taking first place in any of the competition's several categories -- determined by age and gender -- usually means winning admission and a scholarship to one of the world's great professional ballet training programs and/or a position in highly acclaimed ballet company.
These are coveted prizes, and the kids featured in First Position are hungry for them. So hungry, in fact, that they spend most of their time in classes and rehearsal, put themselves through a daily training program that rivals that of adult professional athletes, and wind up spending enormous sums of their parent's money -- with their parents' complete agreement -- on choreography and costumes.
Ballet is quite an expensive pursuit -- a pair of slippers, for example, can cost up to $85, and last but a day. Yet somehow the families of the ardent and talented manage to support them., and very willing so.
An Appealing Cast of Characters
Collectively, the six lead characters have skills, stamina and dedication that are really quite astonishing. They are all absolutely convinced that what they want out of life is to be professional ballet dancers with leading companies, members of the very select and elite few who succeed at that highly competitive and disciplined art form.
But, while they have similarly focused ambitions, the six come from remarkably difficult backgrounds.
Eleven-year-old Aran Bell, who has been taking ballet lessons since he was four years old, is the son of a U.S. Navy doctor, who chooses his place of deployment according to where his son can get the best ballet training. Aran is so committed to dancing that he applies a tortuous stretching device to his feet to increase his arch.
Gaya Bommer Yemeni, an Israeli girl who's in the female division of Aran's age group, met Aran at another competition, and is his best friend, although they see each other only sporadically. Gaya is the daughter of a choreographer mom, and she always has particularly charming routines that she executes with great charisma.
Fourteen-year-old Michaela DePrince, born in civil war-torn Sierra Leone, was placed in an orphanage after her father was murdered and her mother succumbed to starvation. She and her sister were adopted by a white middle class American family and Michaela thinks its a miracle she survived and got to where she is. She has already faced some prejudice against black female ballet dancers -- who are stereotyped by ignorant people as being too muscular and not graceful enough for classical ballet. Her long term goal is to return to Sierra Leone and establish a ballet school for children.
Teenage Joan Sebastian Zamora is the son of impoverished parents who live in Columbia. He has left everything and everyone to move to the United States in order to pursue his ballet training, and dreams of becoming a professional so he can help his family improve their circumstances.
In the senior division, Rebecca Houseknect is the 'Barbie' of the group. She's beautiful and blond, has a sign reading 'princess' on her bedroom door, and is a high schooler who is a cheerleader and drives around in a car with a pink fur covered steering wheel. She's oddly flexible, as we see when she lifts her leg over her head and bends her body so that the leg is actually at a right angle with her other leg. It almost hurts to watch this.
Tweenager Miko Fogarty's mom has, in support of her daughter's ambitions, put her entire family on a highly restricted diet, and will go to any lengths to provide Miko with the right fuel and all the accessories she needs to succeed. Miko's younger brother, Jules Jarvis, is also given ballet classes, but is neither as talented nor into the discipline as his sister. He refuses to tell his classmates that he studies ballet, but figures that the secret training may eventually help him get into Harvard, where he will study something else.
The Film's Special Appeal
These kids' stories are certainly enough to keep you entertained during the documentary's 90 minutes, and you wind up hoping they'll all prevail at the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix. The film culminates with their performances and the award ceremony.
No spoilers here. You'll have to see the film to find out who wins, and what they win.
First Position fits into a popular category of documentaries that chronicle kids with unusual ambitions and professional goals, including films such as Racing Dreams, which follows several go karters who dream of becoming professional race car drivers, and Whiz Kids, chronicling kids competing for first place in the Intel Science Talent Search. First Position actually focuses on double the number of kids followed in the other two films. The six ballet kids' stories are nicely interwoven, but, with the exception of Joan Sebastian and Michaela, we don't get to know much about what their personal drive comes from. Nor do we learn about the dangers and difficulties that young and ambitious ballet dancers can face, ranging from struggles with self esteem to anorexia. Nor do any of them have to overcome the opposition of parents who reject the path of the professional dancer.
The only angst-filled moments in the film occur when the kids are experiencing pre-performance jitters, and during the Youth America Grand Prix awards ceremony, where they're waiting to hear the names of the winners.
The kids' performances are magnificent and film is chock full of inspiration, but slight on the behind the scenes drama of their lives.
Still, First Position is surely a crowd pleaser, and we will, no doubt, be seeing more of these talented kids as their career progress and their dreams come true.
If You Like This Film, You May Also Like:
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- Title: First Position
- Director: Bess Kargman
- Premiere Date: September 11, 2011, Toronto International Festival, Canada
- U.S. Theatrical Release Date: May 4, 2012 (limited)
- Running Time: 90 mins.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Production Country: USA
- Filming Locations: Canada, New York City, Paris, Tokyo, San Francisco, London, Asuncion (Paraguay), Colombia, Italy
- Language: English
- Production Company: First Position Production Company
- Distribution: Sundance Selects (IFC Films)
- Official Web Site