First Position is a fitting title for a documentary about ballet, especially one that “centers” around the different “stages” of a dancer’s career. Life is a series of new beginnings and every time you think you’ve made it in a particular endeavor, something new lurks around the corner and next thing you know, you find yourself at square one—or as it is with ballet, in first position, how every class begins at barre—unless your teacher starts pliés in second. Or maybe a parallel first…but I digress. The point is, most of the time, you find yourself in first, ready to begin each class anew. Whether you’re an aspiring dancer in training or a professional, first position anchors you to the experience of starting over. It’s some kind of metaphor for life or something like that.
Anyway, Bess Kargman’s film follows five young dancers of varying ages and backgrounds, pursuing the dream of becoming professional ballet dancers, and competing in the illustrious Youth America Grand Prix. It’s a colorful cast of characters with a pretty blonde princess in pink, a black girl fighting racial stereotypes, a young Latin man living far away from his family to pursue a better life, a pair of Asian-American kids with a heavily invested mother, and the son of a Navy officer currently living and training in Europe. Anyone who follows ballet has seen most of these people before and can probably even name professional dancers who have preceded them under similar circumstances. However, it would be a gross generalization to simply file these kids into such categories. For example, the extraordinary Michaela DePrince is a war orphan from Sierra Leone who has witnessed far more horror than any child ever should, including the death of her parents at the hands of rebels. It’s sort of an odd conundrum because ballet so frequently calls for setting aside individuality—whether it be developing uniformity in the corps de ballet, a choreographer asking dancers to embody his/her vision, or even teachers asking for technique to be executed in a certain way—that these personal stories are of utmost importance. I will always marvel at them, as familiar as they may (or may not!) be, and luckily First Position is laden with inspiring ones.
In addition to typical, but likable characters (Jules, the little brother of Miko Fogarty is a great comic relief), there is the assortment of stock topics like eating disorders, injuries, pressure to succeed, etc., thus rendering the film as one that doesn’t really present anything new, though it does show a reality that is at least truthful. The problem with trying to create a complete picture of ballet at this level is that many things are inevitably skimmed over, and while you hear the dancers’ perspectives on these topics there isn’t time for a great deal of elaboration. As a slice of life the film does a fantastic job and as a balletomane it’s obviously entertaining to me. However, I find myself struggling with trying to describe why the film matters in the grand scheme of things because it’s neither a historical piece nor the subjective type, so the message is rather murky. I’m all for watching these kids tell their unique stories and for getting a glimpse at their incredible gifts—it’s obvious the director wanted to see the physicality of dance in a way that likens it to sport, but I would’ve liked to have seen something to balance it out by showing why dance is not a sport. Approaches to training aside, consider how sports psychology is seen as a legitimate field of study, when I’d venture to say there’s not nearly as much in terms of performance arts psychology. It just seemed like there were opportunities to briefly illuminate on such matters like that or even genetic factors, like how the mere chance at a ballet career can be decided so quickly upon physique was something only casually mentioned, when it could have provided a broader scope as to how rare these kids are. And let’s not talk about how the film glazed over Carlos Acosta! Joan Sebastian Zamora idolizes him and equates his desire to be the first Colombian dancer to join the Royal Ballet to Acosta being the first black dancer to have done it, but Acosta has accomplished so much more and is a MEGA-STAR (yes, read in all caps) in our world.
Without giving too much away, I’d like to mention some of my favorite parts of the film. There was a moment where Michaela shared a bit of wisdom far beyond her years, in which she said that what they put their bodies through is “not normal.” She’s obviously mature for her age to recognize that much, and it almost makes me wish she didn’t have to grow up so fast the way dancers do because they have to make career decisions in adolescence…but it makes me a big fan of hers nonetheless (hell, I’m twice her age and still lacking a sense of purpose!). Clearly, she has a good understanding of what she’s gotten herself into. Also, the insanely talented Aran Bell (whose teacher is Denys Ganio, formerly of the Paris Opera Ballet and father of Mathieu Ganio, now a principal dancer with POB—is old school and absolutely hysterical) has a special friendship with a little Israeli dancer named Gaya Bommer. In the film I believe they’re both eleven, so it’s not like they’re dating, but it’s kind of like how Balanchine once said something to the effect of just having a man and a woman on stage automatically creates drama. Aran and Gaya are carefree, goofy, fun-loving kids that are as irresistibly cute as baby bunnies. Looks like a childhood doesn’t have to be completely sacrificed for the sake of the art.
Well, I won’t go into further details because I don’t want to spoil the film for those of you still waiting to see it, but I will say that despite some obstacles along the way, like a Soviet Swan Lake it’s all about the happy ending here, which speaks volumes about the level of talent at the YAGP. However, such a result also shrouds some of the more grim possibilities and the fates of the forgotten. Still, as fluffy as First Position is, sometimes it’s just plain nice to see plenty of good fortune to go around. It’s not a film that’s going to shatter the image of ballet or smash through misconceptions, but it’s a film that will leave you with a smile on your face, which is always worth more than the price of admission.
For Seattle area-readers, First Position will open Friday, May 25, 2012, at the Seven Gables Theatre in the University District. For everyone else, be sure to ‘like’ First Position on Facebook for theatre listings and updates on screenings.