Reviewed by Marc Glassman
Bess Kargman’s feature doc First Position is an exceptionally well-realised film about the hopes and hard work of a disparate group of young dancers intent on being accepted into ballet schools and in one case, a professional company. To achieve their goal, each has entered into the Youth America Grand Prix, the dance world’s largest competition, which offers scholarships to major ballet schools. Kargman, who trained as a ballerina when she was a girl, was able to establish a rapport with each of the young dancers and is able to effectively tell their stories while also documenting the intense training that takes place in order to turn a promising performer into a pro.
The seven aspirants profiled are: Jules, 10, and Miko Fogarty, 11, Asian-American siblings living in upwardly mobile circumstances in California; Aran Bell, 11, a talented American boy who returns from Europe to compete for the Grand Prix in his age range; Gaya Bommer Yemini, 11, an Israeli girl who is very impressed by Aran; Michaela DePrince, 14, an orphan from Sierra Leone, whose ballet training is supported by her loving American adoptive parents; Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, a Colombian who is homesick but absolutely dedicated to becoming a ballet star and Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, an American princess, who has the single mindedness to be a ballerina despite tugs from friends to embrace a normal, more social life.
As British journalist Richard Littlejohn puts it, “you couldn’t make it up.” Kargman has found the right mix of real life characters who can convey the dreams of young performers around the world. And the Youth America Grand Prix offers her the proper dramatic moments for the conclusion of the film. In this, she’s following a trend of well-made docs that have dealt with competitions ranging from Spellbound (about spelling bees) to Murderball (about paraplegic rugby) to Wordplay (about crossword puzzles). (Not to mention such TV shows as American (and Canadian) Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.)
But that doesn’t mean that Kargman hasn’t directed a fine documentary, merely that she knows how to package her interest in youths and ballet into an accessible and quite marketable film. In fact, First Position won the Jury Prize at the San Francisco Doc Fest and audience awards at both the Dallas and Portland Film Festivals. The First Runner-up to the Audience Award at TIFF last year, this is a film that will certainly appeal to audiences in Toronto—and to any film aficionado who enjoys a well produced and structured feature doc.