A Review of First Position, a documentary by Bess Kargman
By REBECCA, May 21, 2012
We all love dance movies, right? Center Stage, Dirty Dancing, Step Up, The Red Shoes—the interpersonal competition, the amazing costumes, the tawdry dance-sex, and the use of dance to express the characters’ innermost dreams! Well, I just saw First Position, the ballet documentary that I’ve been looking forward to seeing, and it did not disappoint! But . . . not for any of the reasons that I love over-the-top dance movies.
First Position follows six ballet dancers between the ages of 10 and 17 as they compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, the biggest award- and scholarship-granting competition for young dancers. The documentary follows a dramatic form similar to elimination competitions and the delightful documentary Spellbound, which followed eight kids during the 1999 National Spelling Bee: we meet the dancers, learn their back stories, and follow them through the semi-finals around the world, and the finals in New York City.
The film was totally charming! There are the sweet 11 year-old Aran, the son of a naval officer living in Italy, who trains all day and feeds goats on a mountainside, Joan Sebastian, the 16 year-old Colombian dancer living in Queens who hasn’t seen his family in over a year, Miko and Jules, a brother and sister with a hilarious coach and a very involved mother, and the 14 year-old Michaela, adopted from Sierre Leone as a child, who dances through intense pain, and 17 year-old Rebecca, a blonde high schooler whose car and room are emblazoned with “princess” in glittery pink letters. Then there’s the amazing Gaya, Aran’s Israeli friend who drops in about halfway through the film and kind of steals the show.
Unlike most dance movies, which highlight the drama among dancers,First Position focuses entirely on the personal journeys of the dancers and their individual relationships with dance. I know that I, like many other YA enthusiasts, appreciate when young adult characters are portrayed as the inspiring, amazing, flawed people that they so often are. It was really inspiring, for that reason, to see these teens (and younger) showing such totally wicked commitment and dedication to their art! They were so poised and focused, so mature and just . . . joyous about dancing.
The dancers come from all different backgrounds, so we get to experience many different approaches to ballet, from Miko, who is home-schooled to allow more time for dancing, to Rebecca, who was a high school cheerleader. (Also, some of the dancers’ back stories are amazingly poignant, but I won’t spoil them.) Along the way there are snippets of hilarious dance instructors, clueless/very invested parents, and, best of all, a bit of commentary about the roles of race and gender in the ballet world.
What sticks out the most, though, is the inspiring dedication that these young adults are putting into their dance! My sister and I basically stumbled into the movie stuffed full of an indulgent Amada tapas dinner and a few cocktails and we left weeping with admiration and dancing in the subway.
Bunheads by Sophie Flack (2011). This dance novel by a former bunhead follows a year in the life of one dancer in a New York ballet company who has to choose between dancing and having a different kind of life. You can read the full review here.
Say Goodnight, Gracie by Julie Reece Deaver (1988). Shy Morgan and outgoing Jimmy have been best friends since they were little kids. Now, in high school, they support each others’ dreams—Morgan’s of acting, and Jimmy’s of dancing. Say Goodnight, Gracie follows their friendship through auditions and skipping school—but can Morgan survive without Jimmy?
Every Little Step, a documentary by Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern (2008). This amazing documentary follows the casting of the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line. Again, I saw it with my sister and if I made an infographic representing the way we spent the movie it would look like this:weeping: 50% laughing: 20% staring in slack-jawed awe: 25% sobbing/clutching each other to stifle our sobs: 5%
So, have you seen First Position? What did you think? What’s your favorite dance movie/book?!