Review: First Position

A new documentary shows the extreme ups and downs of dance that most young people have never encountered.

Caroline Bursell

Director and producer Bess Kargman’s documentary First Position hits cinemas in the UK for the first time, and is a captivating biopic of aspiring young dancers, telling stories from the Italian countryside to Maryland suburbs to war-torn Africa.

International passion

The film follows six vastly different children as they prepare for the annual Youth America Grand Prix, a New York City competition held for nine to 19-year-olds. The prizes include scholarships and professional contracts with the crème de la crème of dance companies and schools. 

Proving that irrepressible love for ballet is a global sentiment, Kargman pursues a host of unique personalities: 11-year-old Aran, an American ‘army kid’ living in Italy, 14-year-old Michaela, adopted from Sierra Leone with a horrifying childhood, siblings 10-year-old Jules and 12-year-old Miko with a stringent Japanese mother, 16-year-old Colombian Joan living alone in New York and finally 17-year-old blonde all-American beauty Rebecca.

Forfeit a ‘normal’ life

Setting foot on stage at the Youth America Grand Prix is a dream and an undeniable goal for these young dancers, and out of more than 5,000 applicants only a few hundred get to show their stuff in front of the dance world’s head honchos.

These are the stakes that push children of all ages to forfeit a ‘normal’ life in the name of around-the-clock training, which includes beating and bending their bodies to impossible angles and entirely immersing themselves in their art – and in that way, taking their parents with them.

Ballet is no budget business, and First Position showcases the realities of parents’ dedication alongside their children’s in an astonishing and relatable way, chronicling the efforts of proud mothers and fathers as they sacrifice their time and money to pay for world-class training and tutu fabrics.

Given a rare chance

The strengths of the film lie in its drama, the pure passion and perseverance shown in its subjects, and the details that will leave audiences in awe. Outside of their astounding tenacity, the children are still children, and the humility and innocence in their personalities is a touching thing.

Even for those uninterested in ballet, First Position is a worthwhile feature, if anything to enjoy the rare chance of witnessing the lives of kids like natural prodigy Aran, who ‘loves skateboarding’, ‘Cartoon Girl’ Gaya Bommer Yemini, and especially the adopted Michaela, who lived through hardship with admirable grace.

A film with bruised, bleeding feet but in no way fragile bleeding hearts, First Position may not be a fast-paced action-packed documentary but is definitely an interesting watch, a hard-hitting tribute to an intense industry alive with the passion of many generations. 

First Position is released in cinemas April 12.

Rating: 7/10

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