The reach-for-your-dream spectacle of TV competitions like So You Think You Can Dance has become a pop culture narrative. But those trumped-up melodramas can’t come close to the real-life sacrifice, stunning talent and dedicated characters in First Position, a documentary film about the Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest and most prestigious ballet competition.
Child ballet dancer and former journalist Bess Kargman brings a dancer’s passion and insight to her directorial debut, illuminating the addictive magic and fierce demands of a ballet dancer’s life.
Kargman’s film focuses on five very different young dancers as they prepare for Youth America, which awards life-changing prizes including scholarships and jobs at the world’s top classical dance institutions:
Aran Bell, 11, from a U.S. military family, likes pogo sticks and BB guns, spins like a dervish and hovers like a bee.
Japanese-American sprite Miko Fogarty, 12, is the disciplined pride of her uber-tiger mother. “People say that I’ve missed out on childhood,” Fogarty says of her hours of daily practice. “I think I’ve had just the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.”
Self-described “Barbie” Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, hides steely determination beneath her sleek blonde exterior.
Most compelling are two dancers who have overcome seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, the hope of his family in Cali, Colombia, lives with a fellow teenager in a bleak New York apartment and dreams of following Cuban Carlos Acosta, also a dark-skinned Latino, to England’s Royal Ballet.
And Michaela DePrince, 14, is a war orphan from Sierra Leone, adopted by a Jewish family in Philadelphia, who at the orphanage clung to a picture of a ballerina in Dance Magazine because “she just looked so happy and beautiful.” DePrince has lived through horrors (her mother starved to death after her father was killed) and overcome racist stereotypes to advance to the Grand Prix.
What all five have in common are desire, discipline and spectacular talent. “He’s one in a million — one in a lifetime,” Aran’s teacher says.
These children are stunning — sleek, powerful, poised, capable of feats that most grown dancers couldn’t achieve. Gaya Bommer, a young Israeli girl who bonds with Aran, seems possessed by an emotional intensity when she performs that exhilarates and bewilders her.
Kargman contrasts this out-of-body elation with up-close looks at the gritty physical work, the daily hours of practice, the body-twisting stretches and blistered feet that make the soaring results all the more amazing. These children’s determination is inseparable from — and as moving as — their talent.
The dancers’ families are just as dedicated. We see Michaela’s adoptive mother sewing tutus and dying costumes to match her daughter’s dark skin. Fogarty’s mother makes a career out of her daughter’s training, and weeps with disappointment when her son opts out of ballet for an ordinary childhood. Zamora’s mother weeps, too, at her son’s absence and in hope for a future that will take him out of Colombia.
Knowing the dancers’ stories, the stakes at the Grand Prix finals in New York seem terribly high. There’s a satisfying rush of details: young girls folded weeping into their tutus, dressing room signs in 12 languages, perfectly made-up eyes flickering at competitors a few feet away.
DePrince goes into the finals limping with tendonitis, a painful condition that could derail her dancing where war and race could not. Can willpower and talent keep her going or will she ruin her body? Will she win a scholarship that will take her to the next level or does her dancing stop here?
You’ll have to see First Position to find out.
Cast: Aran Bell, Michaela DePrince, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht, Joan Sebastian Zamora.
Director: Bess Kargman.
Producers: Bess Kargman, Rose Caiola, Nick Higgins, Jennilyn Merten.
A Sundance Selects release. Running time: 94 minutes. In English/Spanish/French/Hebrew with subtitles. Opens Friday May 11 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.