Bess Kargman’s ‘kids compete’ documentary enters the world of the classical ballet competition, which makes for a compelling and emotionally involving film.
By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
May 4, 2012
“Gotta dance!” is what Gene Kelly insists in “Singing in the Rain,” and none of the driven young people featured in the irresistible “First Position” would do anything but enthusiastically agree.
As directed by Bess Kargman, “First Position” is in part the latest wrinkle in a documentary sub-genre that’s proved wildly popular. Combine eager youngsters with the elixir of competition and, whether it’s spelling bee rivals in “Spellbound” or recreational dancers in “Mad Hot Ballroom,” you have a formula for maximum audience engagement.
But because, as its title indicates, “First Position” is set in the world of classical ballet competition, the situation is even more compelling and emotionally involving. For young people, it’s more than a hobby or a sidelight. Ballet consumes entire lives and involves an overwhelming commitment of time, emotion and funds from not only the child but also his or her adult support group.
Also upping the ante is that to a person the kids profiled here are truly, madly, deeply in love with dance. So what is at stake in these competitions is more than momentary recognition or success, it is a life path. Not doing well enough to be able to take the next step career-wise is the equivalent of being told you aren’t going to be allowed to fall in love.
“First Position” focuses not on just any ballet competition but on the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world’s premier events that starts with 5,000 entrants and concludes with 300 contestants in the tenser than tense finals held annually in New York. Unlike the situation in “Spellbound,” where the nature of the event allows for only one winner, this contest, which awards scholarships and company contracts as well as trophies, allows for a small handful of successful competitors, though the battle for these good things is still super intense.
The seven kids “First Position” focuses on have been carefully chosen by filmmaker Kargman, who started with advice from Grand Prix officials and then put her background as a working journalist to good use. Though they have traits like perfectionism and zeal in common, and they have made similar life decisions, often opting for home schooling to ensure more time to dance, these young dancers are very different in personality, background and situation. Kargman knows the importance of taking the time to introduce each one fully, so that by the time everyone starts to dance at the Grand Prix we will be fully invested in their stories.
From a purely dance point of view, the competitor who makes the strongest impression is also the youngest, the preternaturally gifted 11-year-old Aran Bell, who lives with his American military family in Italy. He’s been dancing since he was 4 and says, “I love ballet so much it’s hard to explain.” Aran commutes two hours daily to five hours of training. One of the highlights of the film is his friendship with Gaya Bommer Yemini, a gifted Israeli female dancer his own age whom he meets at competitions.
Perhaps the most compelling human interest story belongs to Michaela DePrince, a 14-year-old war orphan from Sierra Leone, adopted by a family in Philadelphia, who remembers “everywhere you looked, you saw someone die for no reason.” Fixated on ballet since she saw a torn magazine cover at the orphanage, Micheala has to fight the prejudice that “everyone knows black girls can’t dance ballet.”
In some ways, the most noteworthy thing about Miko Fogarty, a talented and self-possessed 12-year-old from Northern California, is the drive and determination of her mother, Satoko. That drive is so intense that it has made a dancer, perhaps against his will, of Miko’s younger brother Jules.
The dancer who’s come the longest way is Joan Sebastian Samora, who left his family in Cali, Colombia, to train in Manhattan. And the dancer who tries the hardest to have a well-adjusted teenage life is blond Rebecca Houseknecht, who jokes that she became a cheerleader as “another attempt at normalcy.”
These performers are so young, so serious, so full of dreams and so hard on themselves that it is difficult not to be moved by their striving. With their futures on the line, each one has, as one of the judge’s comments, “five minutes onstage to prove why you deserve this chance and not somebody else.” That’s a recipe for involving drama, if anything is.
Bess Kargman’s debut documentary is a marvelous way to spend 94 minutes, provided you’re willing to spend them with your heart in your mouth.
The subject is young dancers seeking awards, validation and elite contracts in a ballet competition called the Youth America Grand Prix, which holds its final round in Manhattan. In structure the film is a real-life “Billy Elliot,” but the familiar formula doesn’t exclude breathtaking surprises. Beneath the jetés and bleeding feet, “First Position” is about toughness of mind as much as visions of beauty. In one case it’s about a transformation so profound as to be unfathomable.
That distinction belongs to Michaela DePrince. A black war orphan from Sierra Leone, she was adopted at the age of four and brought into a very large, very white New Jersey family. When she recalls the horrors of her first four years she does so matter-of-factly: “Everywhere you looked you saw someone die…one time I tried to save my teacher, but they just came and cut her arms and legs off.” Michaela’s arms and legs are strong; so is her compact body. What she wants might seem out of reach for a young woman of her specific physique—”to be a delicate black dancer who does ballet.” Yet delicacy is in the mind and muscles of the dancer, and Michaela has already proved that nothing is beyond her reach.
Ms. Kargman’s strategy is straightforward—follow six contestants as they make their way through the semifinals and the finals, where everything they’ve learned, everything they’ve worked for and everything they can do must be distilled into a few fleeting moments on stage. There are crushing failures, of course, but also thrilling successes. In one of those success stories, the camera follows a contestant to London, where a scholarship awaits at the Royal Ballet, and where, it is noted in passing, two of the ballet company’s adjacent buildings are connected by an aerial passageway called the Bridge of Aspiration. Everyone in the film has come to such a bridge, and everyone has crossed it.