Directed and produced by Bess Kargman, First Position (2011) follows six dancers aged 9-19, each of them striving for a specific goal – a place in the American Grand Prix final, the world’s most prestigious ballet competition. Five thousand dancers compete for a place in the New York final; younger winners are awarded scholarships to schools, whilst the older competitors contend for jobs. Aran, 11, lives outside Naples on a US Army base and loves skateboarding and ballet. Rebecca, known as Princess and with a penchant for all things pink, attends her local high school and eats a lot – the epitome of a normal teenager.
Michaela, 14, is from Sierra Leone and was adopted by a New Jersey couple. Her birth father was murdered and her mother starved to death. Placed in an orphanage and treated badly due to a skin condition, she recalls the day her teacher had her arms and legs hacked off in front of her. Not your average ballerina. Joan Sebastian is 16 and living in New York so that he can pursue ballet, unthinkable back in his native Colombia. When he returns home and tastes his mum’s chicken soup, the expression on his face is one of the most poignant moments in the film.
Of all the children, Miko (12) and Jules (10) are the ones who appear to have relinquished the most. Miko states that she has “the right amount of childhood, the right amount of ballet”, but she is home-schooled, on a strict diet and put through stretching classes apparently taught by a medieval torturer. Whilst we do see a couple of pushy mums, Miko’s is the most fanatical. These are our six characters in search of a prize. In the last couple of years, audiences have been treated to a veritable feast of groundbreaking documentaries. This isn’t one of them. Kargman has taken a bog-standard approach: meet the kids, watch them dance, meet the families and teachers, then a bit of suspense at the finals.
Though comparisons can be drawn with Marilyn Alegro’s Mad Hot Ballroom (2005), the latter was a far superior and engaging work. Kargman’s use of music is stereotypical – Gallic tunes for the French dance teacher and South American music for Joan. Whilst the filmmaking is pedestrian, the dancers – to paraphrase Joan’s teacher – “fly”. And whether their background is war-torn, poverty-stricken or middle-class American, what they share is a dedication and passion rarely seen on screen in our talent-show age. Kargman may not earn first position, but these dancers most certainly do.