Don't Overlook It: First Position
Dancing Through Life Has Never Looked So Stressful
By Tom Houseman
June 6, 2012
Every week there are great movies released in theaters, but they get no attention and never have a chance to reach an audience. They are rarely released on more than ten screens, only in New York City and Los Angeles, and have no advertising, but they are works of art that deserve to be seen. That’s why I started this column. It’s a way for me to spread the gospel about the great independent films, foreign films, and documentaries that don’t get the attention they deserve from the movie-going public. So before you get in line for that midnight Dark Knight Rises screening, you can find out about some great movies that aren’t getting talked about anywhere else… ever. Until now!
The world of professional ballet is one that is packed with potential for drama, partially because it is an intensely high-pressure and competitive field, and partially because the people involved in it tend to be extremely attractive. Recently, we learned that the stress of being a ballerina is so overwhelming that it can cause you to be unsure about whether or not you actually killed Winona Ryder. But what happens when you strip away all of the hyperbole and surrealism and gross feathers? You get real drama, the kind of drama that you can only get from watching real people pursuing their dreams at any cost. That is what First Position promises, and that is exactly what it delivers.
There is a particular type of documentary that indulges our voyeurism into various niche topics, with the most high profile recent example being Every Little Step, a behind-the-scenes look at the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. First Position might be the best of this type of doc in recent years for a number of reasons, but partially because of its topic. There is so much stress involved in a ballet competition, especially the Youth America Grand Prix, at which careers can be made by a perfect pirouette or broken by a sudden stumble. But while Every Little Step (and similar docs such as Spellbound) was built around an event, and moves from there to explore the lives of the people involved, director Bess Kargman reverses this tactic with remarkably effective results.
The focus of First Position is on a group of young people who have dedicated their lives to ballet. Some of them have moved far from home to pursue their dreams, and have built their lives around the idea that they will someday be paid for their passion. Kargman could not have chosen a more compelling or sympathetic array of dancers to follow, which is part of what makes the film so compelling. These kids - who range in age from nine to 17 - have sacrificed everything for the chance to be professional dancers. Some have moved halfway around the world, either alone or with their families, because they could not get the best training where they were. Under constant pressure from coaches and parents they put up themselves through intense physical and emotional pain in hopes of being the best, and yet throughout the film they remain almost constantly upbeat and optimistic.
The film is not just about ballet, but about how intense and potentially damaging the career is to the people who pursue it. There are so many factors that will affect the rest of these kids' lives, from whether or not they can afford costumes to physical attributes they have no control over (at one point a coach comments on how his pupil has a perfectly-sized head). The most interesting story is Michaela's, a refugee from Sierra Leone who was adopted as a young girl. She is dealing with a factor that is irrelevant to the lives of the other subjects: race. Michaela is one of the only black people we see in the entire film, and stands out in a crowd of white boys and girls. She mentions that there is significant bias and stereotyping around black dancers that she must overcome, and even her coaches use coded racial language, describing her style as “powerful” and “athletic.”
Every one of the subjects of the film has their own compelling story that makes them worth following, and the most endearing might be Aran and Gaya, two nine year-olds training together in Italy. A great documentary needs to do more than just appeal to people already interested in what the film is about, and in that respect First Position is the best documentary since Anvil, which was about a death metal band. I have next to no interest in ballet, but I enjoyed the film as much as the three teenage girls who were sitting next to me, whose reactions helped me realize when someone had pulled off a particularly challenging bit of technique that would be lost on philistines like me.
Of course, it does not matter how interesting a story is if it is not well told, and Bess Karger proves herself to be a mature and poised story-teller with her documentary debut. The film seems to take on the style of its subjects, dancing and moving from scene to scene so smoothly and gracefully, leaping from subject to subject without stumbling, switching countries and cultures without losing its momentum. First Position builds toward the Youth America Grand Prix, at which all of the subjects are competing, and I found myself completely emotionally invested in the stories being shown. Some documentaries try to change the world or force us to rethink the way we live our lives. Others just try to tell a compelling true story and make us care about people we've never met. The latter goal might be less ambitious, but it is no less of an accomplishment when it is done well, and First Position is exemplary of the documentary genre at its best. This is a film not just for ballet lovers, but for lovers of great stories.