Heels together, feet facing outward to form a line – that’s first position. Now, gracefully raise one straight leg to the side, up and over your head with toes pointed. It hurts just to imagine that stretch. But the six young ballet dancers the spotlight follows in First Position, American Bess Kargman’s directorial debut and an audience fave at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, make it look effortless.
Yet, as this entrancing, if formulaic, documentary reveals, it takes more than a little pain and practice, stress and sacrifice to make the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest annual ballet scholarship competition. The Grand Prix, open to students aged 9 to 19, offers an array of full scholarships to prestigious ballet schools and job contracts (to the older competitors) with top companies. After thousands compete in the semis, only 300 make it to the finals in New York. Many leave empty-handed, but everyone who pirouettes onstage is a winner, possessing that rare combination of extreme talent, body type, work ethic and focused ambition that leads to a professional career – so long as they avoid injury.
Kargman, who studied at the Boston Ballet School, shows us the pulled muscles, sprained tendons and scabby misshapen feet that can potentially end the students’ dreams if they push themselves too hard. But her main interest is the daily lives of her main characters as they prepare to compete; they’re all fascinating but a couple leap off the screen.
The most obvious film comparison to First Position is Jeff Blitz’s Oscar-nominated doc Spellbound, which followed a diverse bunch of smart, chatty kids preparing to compete in the 1999 U.S. National Spelling Bee. While Kargman’s film doesn’t have the quirky energy and nail-biting suspense of Spellbound, it does a great job developing its characters through its visuals – these are superphysical kids – and honing in on family dynamics.
Aran, 11, whose military doctor father serves in Kuwait so that his son can study in Italy, is the first kid we meet and he’s a standout – not just because he’s a terrific dancer with unshakable confidence and the poise of a seasoned veteran. Throughout the film, we see him whizzing through corridors on his skateboard or scooter as if he is trying to squeeze a normal boyhood into his work-oriented life. He even inspired another youngster, Gaya, an elfin lithe Israeli girl, to begin ballet training.
Michaela, 14, emerges early on as the heart of the film. Orphaned as a young child during Sierra Leone’s civil war, she witnessed unspeakable horrors before being adopted by a white Philadelphia couple. She may have overcome a persistent prejudice that black dancers aren’t built for classical ballet, but a serious foot injury may force her bow out of competition. For her, a scholarship will not only ease the financial burden for her parents but will move her closer to a career dream that goes far beyond simply joining a professional troupe.
We also meet Joan, 16, who has left behind his family in Colombia to study in New York, Rebecca, 17, a blond pink-loving high-school senior from suburban Maryland, and Miko, 12, a cool, lithe Californian whose single-minded mother seems to devote every waking moment to her daughter’s training.
The competition dances themselves are short, allowing viewers to see most of the performances in addition to rehearsals and interactions with coaches, a few of whom are characters themselves. But what will stick with many viewers after the final curtain call is the devotion of the parents, sacrificing money, career choices and time – lots and lots of it – to help make their child’s dream come true. Something to think about when you’re signing up your kid this fall for beginner ballet classes with stars in your eyes.
Special to The Globe and Mail