Over 5,000 ballet dancers around the world will begin the elimination competition in 15 cities. Those who make it to the finals in New York get five minutes on stage. This seems too little, but as First Position documents, the ability and promise do emerge.
In addition, each of the six contestants featured has a compelling story, especially Michaela, a survivor of the Sierra Leone war during which she witnessed relatives, including her parents, shot by rebels. Adopted by an American couple, she has discipline and toughness, two essential ingredients for professional dancers. So does Joan, 16 years old, from a modest Colombian family. He made the necessary move to New York to pursue his dreams. In the course of the film, he returns to Colombia for an emotional reunion. Joan won’t be able to further develop his talent without a scholarship.
The other four dancers profiled—Jules, Miko, Rebecca and Aran—have, with the exception of one of them, what the judges say they look for: physique, passion, and personality. One judge adds that aspiring dancers need finances as well. Toe shoes average $80 a day; a tutu costs $1500 to $2500.
These astonishingly talented, appealing young ballet dancers keep First Position engaging and informative. For example, Aran uses a foot stretcher to help train the muscles in his feet. It looks as painful as he says it is. Some myths are challenged as several talk about how much they eat, and that they must eat a lot to maintain the energy needed for hours of practice. However, the digitally shot footage is erratically edited with a slack through line.
Kargman jumps around from location to location without coherent links, some topics are introduced and then dropped, and the build up to the awards ceremony goes slack just when the suspense and tension should hit a high point. Further qualifying the film’s achievement, The New York Times reports that one of the U.S. Grand Prix Competition founders provided suggestions for picking subjects, a fact not acknowledged during the documentary.
Despite its faults, the disjointed First Position is well worth seeing because of the amazing young dancers, but it could and should have been much more unified and compelling. I was left with many questions never asked and too many topics that remain unexplored. Mostly in English with some French, Hebrew and Spanish with English subtitles. At a Landmark Theatre.