Film Review – First Position
It’s a difficult thing to be a dancer. The hours of rigorous training, the obsession with perfection—all to have a chance for that one moment to be in the spotlight. It’s even more difficult choosing to be a ballet dancer as your profession. Forcing your body to twist and bend into positions that it was not meant to, having to deal with the stigma of being in ballet from those who do not understand it, and the personal sacrifice one must go through to achieve stardom all play into being a part of that world. By the time a ballet dancer is in his or her mid-to-late twenties, their career is already in the decline. Those are just a few of the interesting things we learn in the documentary First Position (2011). While not necessarily breaking any boundaries, the film shows the difficulty a young person must go through for the sake of their art and achieving their dreams.
In the film, we meet six young people ranging from ages nine to nineteen, from all parts of the world and social classes, and each encompassing the same dream of being a professional ballet dancer. They all have the same goal in mind: to enter and win their regional competitions and move on to the Youth America Grand Prix, where they will have a shot at earning an invitation to an elite school or a chance of entering a professional company. This is their sole focus, what they strive for against everything else. One might say that practicing so hard and putting so much time into their craft can take away from their experience of being a kid, but the dancers would argue that their childhoods are richer because of it.
When thinking of films about ballet that have stuck with me, I tend to remember the ones that touch on the darker side of human nature. Films like The Red Shoes (1948) or Black Swan (2010) depict how people can lose themselves in being perfect, thus forgetting the pure joy they initially felt when they started dancing. This movie does not delve into that area. Instead, it focuses more on love of dance, and how much these kids want to succeed beyond anything else. There is a reason that they are ranked amongst the finest in their age bracket, and it’s because they put in the most dedication. I was fascinated to see young friends Aran and Gaya, who act and behave just like any other normal kids, but once they are on stage they are completely in their own worlds, dominating their performances like any other professional athlete.
The unique dancers that are featured here also have unique family members. To have your child enter ballet is to enter a world of anxiety, hope, joy, and sacrifice for a parent. The very cost of putting your child through ballet classes—as one teacher describes—is comparable to that of college tuition. The only difference is that ballet directors are cutting more people than they are hiring. So, as a parent, it takes a delicate balance between toughness and leniency. Take, for example, dancer Miko and her mother. Miko is a promising dancer who wants to win the Grand Prix, but before she started taking classes her mother knew next to nothing about the art. For her child, she learned everything she could, and pushed Miko to be the very best she could be. Some might mistakenly think that Miko’s mother is too tough, especially in the scene where Miko’s brother Jules makes a decision about his own dancing career. But I find that assessment to be inaccurate. I think the depiction of the parents in the movie is that of supportive ones, doing whatever they can to help their kids in whatever fashion they feel they must. In the end, the toughness they show is more of a positive factor than a negative one.
Two people stand out from the rest, both in the older age group. Joan and Michaela come from different parts of the world and have seen different things, but both feel similar in their paths. Joan was born and raised in poverty in Colombia, came to the United States to train, and hopes to one day be accepted into the Royal Academy in England. Michaela was born in Sierra Leone, in the midst of violence and rebellion. She has seen death and mayhem, but at a young age was adopted by American citizens and brought to the country that introduced her to dance. Both Joan and Michaela, despite their different backgrounds, represent how dance can really save the lives of many of these young people, and thus their stories are the most interesting. Dance has given them a sense of direction, something to strive for, and a goal to reach out to beyond their more humble beginnings.
Director Bess Kargman has given us a documentary that doesn’t present much beyond what we have seen in other films like it, but is an entertaining and enjoyable experience nonetheless. There isn’t a large amount of tension besides seeing whether or not the dancers win at the Grand Prix; what we see of their personalities is basically what we get. All of the kids have spark and each is easy to root for, and at the end of the day we get a sense that regardless of what happens, fate will be kind toward each of them.
Final Grade: B