First Position (2011/2012): Directed by Bess Kargman. Featuring: Michaela DePrince, Aran Bell, Miko Fogarty, Jules Fogarty, Joan Sebastian Zamora, and Rebecca Hausknecht. Running Time: 90 minutes.
Rating: 3/4 Stars
The common stereotype of ballet is, of course, that it’s just for girls. I was spared having such a misconception at a pretty early age thanks to my cousin, a lifelong dance enthusiast who currently does ballet professionally (and whose physique makes me hang my head in shame at every family gathering). So I never had any hang-ups about the idea that ballet was something for both men and women. Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible to truly understand what ballet dancers must endure day in and day out unless you’ve either a) done professional ballet yourself at any point or b) watched a close friend or immediate family member do so. First Position is a documentary intended to correct such understandable ignorance in its audience by looking at a small group of contestants at the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix, one of the premiere competitions for young, aspiring ballet dancers (young in this case being under 19).
The film begins by showing a stage crew sweeping a dance floor covered in the rubber mats used for ballet performances. I have had to prepare those mats myself. Such mats are around three feet wide, and long, long enough that each one can reach across an entire professional stage. The mats must all be laid down side by side. There can be no gaps, cracks, bumps, or inconsistencies in how the mats are set up- they must form a perfectly smooth, clean surface. Any imperfections are potential catalysts for disaster- stubbed toes, ruined numbers, or even (God forbid) serious falls and injuries. Once laid down, the mats must be taped to each other and to the floor. They must then be swept and mopped, and re-swept between each performance. Dust, dirt, and water are just as dangerous for the dancers as a bumpy mat.
It is precisely that perfectionist attention to detail, magnified exponentially, that is required to perform ballet well enough just to be able to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, much less actually place at the competition or win one of its coveted scholarships. First Position takes us into this world of unyielding competition, brutal mental stress, and constant, body-breaking work through the eyes of six children of various ages, detailing their lives before their selection, during their training, and after the competition. All six- Michaela, Aran, Jules, Miko, Joan Sebastian, and Rebecca- hope to land either a medal or a scholarship at the 2010 Prix. For some of them, this is their single, best chance at professional recognition- if they win something, their chances for success soar. If they fail to impress, do poorly, or are seriously injured, it can be a mortal blow to their odds.
Their stories are as varied as their dancing styles. Aran is an “military brat” living in Italy, Rebecca, a blond-haired, pink-wearing “princess” in a typical high school. Joan Sebastian is the oldest son of a poor family in South America, training in New York, Michaela, an African girl adopted by a white, Jewish couple in the States. Miko and her brother Jules are young children of Asian-American parentage. They are all clearly talented, and are far more physically fit than I will ever be, even though some of them are only half my age. They all push themselves through immensely difficult training just to have a shot at maybe making it professionally one day. They must bend and twist their legs in ways they aren’t supposed to. Their feet must be just as dexterous as their hands. They must be hard on themselves to want to correct mistakes and perfect techniques, but too much emotional pressure, from either themselves or others, can be just as destructive as a physical injury.
It's inspiring to hear their stories and to see their obvious passion for what they do. They all admit it’s hard, even agonizing at times- but it’s what they want to do, and they could never live with themselves if they didn’t at least try to make it. Ballet dancers like these kids (not to mention my cousin) are blessed in that, from their earliest years, they know what direction they want their lives to take. While the rest of us (myself firmly included) are mired in youthful indecision exacerbated by the limitless choices presented to us, these kids are not just exercising a whole lot- they are literally breaking down and rebuilding not just their bodies, but themselves as people, and seeing this group do that, each in their own ways and for their own reasons, is a powerful reminder of what is possible when you have that level of passion for something.
If I had to level a criticism at First Position from a cinematic standpoint, it would be that the whole endeavor is often unfocused. Beyond showing us the six people, there is little effort to offer a comprehensive view of the world of youth ballet and its various effects (both good and bad) on the body. There are sporadic interviews with teachers that discuss the physical threat of injury, but the viewer leaves the film no more informed about how often and how serious various injuries are in the world of ballet than before they saw the film. No statistics are presented to show whether or not ballet is a growing activity among younger generations. Even the film's attention to its main subjects is uneven and choppy. A few of them are given lots of screen time with their families, and their results at the Prix are delved into in great detail, while the rest are relegated to a brief summary after the credits have already started rolling. One of the dancers, Miko’s brother Jules, quits ballet halfway through the film and disappears altogether. Meanwhile, a close friend of Aran’s from Israel is given more and more screen time as the film progresses, but is never credited as one of the “six dancers” the film claims to follow- neither she nor her family are ever interviewed directly. Snippets of interviews with other dancers are shown, but only briefly, leaving the impression that a lot more people were interviewed for this project and got cut or edited out somewhere along the line, giving more than a few spots of the film an unfinished feel.
This is not a criticism of something that detracts from the film, but it does distract, if only sporadically. The film’s subject matter- six children struggling to make their dreams comes true, never stops making you want to see what happens next, and the clips of them dancing are amazing and beautiful to watch. If you have ever had an interest in dancing, specifically ballet, this is a must-see.