The intense and competitive world of ballet is thrown into the spotlight in First Position. Directed by Bess Kargman, the documentary investigates the lives of six young dancers, all prepping for the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City. The film not only analyzes each dancer’s determination, but also examines the stereotypes within professional ballet and the sacrifices each dancer and their families must make on their way to the top.
The film profiles six different dancers, three boys and three girls between the ages of 10 and 17. Kargman’s cameras follow them through rehearsals, their home lives, and from the semi-finals all the way to the Youth America Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is incredibly important for dancers who wish to make a career out of ballet. Both scholarships and spots in ballet companies are awarded, with the who’s who of ballet from all over the globe gathering to watch the performances. Competition is fierce, and there are precious few spots available in companies who are dropping dancers more quickly than hiring them. The need to stand out is imperative.
First Position is particularly enjoyable because it shows dancers of all different backgrounds. No youth’s story is the same, which makes it all the more riveting to see them all striving for the same goal. Michaela, 14 years old, was an orphan adopted from war torn Sierra Leone. Both her and her mother speak of the stereotypes that work against her. Michaela is told that black dancers have bad feet, that they are not worth investing in or are too athletic to achieve a perfect ballerina’s body. Her mother dedicates time to modifying Michaela’s ballerina outfits, dying ‘flesh coloured’ (note: white flesh) undergarments brown to blend in to her daughter’s skin.
Joan Sebastian faces another battle. He is a Columbian immigrant, living in New York, separated from his entire family to pursue his dreams. When he was growing up, his parents were relieved when Joan took up dancing, because it kept him off the streets. Now, his only hope of continuing to dance is to earn a scholarship from the Grand Prix.
Like any sports documentary, the audience is treated to the usual scenes of training. The film also covers the eating regimes of the dancers, and, most tragically, the high risk of injury. The very same over zealous commitment to improve and be the best can be the thing that brings talented dancers down permanently. As they push their bodies to the limit, dancers run the risk of developing stress fractures, foot problems or tearing ligaments. Injuries can take a dancer out of the running for six months to a year, forcing many to try and push through. Unfortunately this usually leads to career ending damage. Seeing such young hopefuls being taken down in such a way is heart rending.
We also see the support network behind each dancer. Their talents are upheld not only by their own dedication, but that of their parents. Siblings Miko and Jules have their family move to be closer to their dance studio, and Miko home schools so that she has more time to rehearse. She laments the lost time with her friends, but is relentless in the pursuit of her dreams, practicing hours every day. Other parents featured move their jobs, and homes in the hopes that these personal sacrifices will be worth it in the end. The hope is that the training their child receives will give them that slight leg up that the other competitors may not receive. This strong focus on family is refreshing, and although ballet is highly competitive, we never see any instances of unsportsmanlike behaviour. Everything showcased reveals a nurturing, yet strict training environment.
Above all, First Position makes it clear that ballet is not just a physical performance, but a mental one as well. Dancers must evoke emotion, and at times push through extreme pain to pull off their best work. The dedication and showmanship from such young athletes is where this film truly draws its strength. The audience is afforded a glimpse into the lives of incredibly driven young people, who one day may be the leaders in the world of dance.