The tears are often held tremulously back and the many hurts smiled away in First Position, an appealing, largely upbeat documentary about young ballet dancers duking it out, sometimes on point and in tulle, for top honors at the Youth America Grand Prix.
Each year, this prominent competition hands out both actual contracts and more than a quarter of a million dollars in scholarships to dance schools. Soloists, 9 to 19, from Australia to Ukraine have up to two and a half minutes (ensembles have up to six) to wow the judges and perhaps change their lives. In First Position, they have 94 minutes to win you over, first as a group as seemingly alike as the cygnets in Swan Lake, and later as stars.
At center, leaping and turning, are six children, all irresistible and, in their different ways, also heart-melters. There’s the youngest of the bunch, Jules Jarvis Fogarty (then 10), a cheerful Californian who clearly doesn’t care much about his moves, and older contestants like Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, a thoughtful Colombian who cares so deeply he moved to New York without his family to study. For more than a year, the director, Bess Kargman, followed Jules, Joan and four other children from their homes to their studios while they prepared for the 2010 Grand Prix finals in New York. (The most recent event was in April.) A seventh child, Gaya Bommer Yemini, 11, a charmer from Israel, hovers around the edges.
Several children, including Aran Bell, 11, and Michaela DePrince, 14, could have been spun off into separate documentaries. A wisp of a blond boy and the son of endearingly young, supportive parents (including his military doctor father), Aran captures your attention with his gravity and drops your jaw with his extraordinary physical lightness — he seems untethered by gravity. For her part, Michaela, an orphan from Sierra Leone adopted by older Americans (a quick, somewhat comical introductory shot of a menorah indiscreetly suggests the unsaid), may leave you a puddled mess by the time she finishes telling her story. But it’s how she came to ballet — through the image of a ballerina in an old magazine — that does you in and shows off Kargman’s storytelling instincts.
Directed by: Bess Kargman
Running time: 94 Minutes
Taiwan release: Today
Kargman’s approach is straightforward, almost matter-of-factly prosaic. Shooting in digital and working with the director of photography Nick Higgins, she tagged after her subjects, traveling across the United States as well as to Europe and Latin America. This gives the movie a sense of depth, as when she follows Joan home to Colombia; but because she chased six different children, ceaselessly cutting from one to another, it also means she could only skim the surface. She’s an efficient filmmaker, however, and using batches of on-screen text and some ruthless editing — the competition dances are, unfortunately, cut down — she manages to create pocket portraits of children whose dedication to their art is by turns inspiring, daunting and, at times, a little frightening.
Children are of course among the most seductive film subjects, inspiring oohs and ahs just by their presence. Wee ones who compete against one another like those in First Position — their little lips trembling with effort, small bodies straining against cruel odds — are even more irresistible, which makes the movie something of a slam dunk when it comes to audience love. This partly explains recent competition-oriented documentaries like Mad Hot Ballroom (about ballroom dance); Spellbound (spelling bee); Whiz Kids (science); Koran by Heart (memorization); and Brooklyn Castle (chess). Given that documentary filmmaking is itself a competitive field, with its makers vying for grants, production money, festival slots, distribution deals, awards and audiences, it’s a subject that is clearly near and dear to the documentarian heart.