A poised, balanced look at ballerina competition
In a pop culture colored by “Dance Moms,” “Black Swan” and “Dancing With the Stars,” it’s sometimes tough not to believe all dancers are either argumentative, psychotic from their pursuit for perfection or constantly doused in sequins from head to toe.
But first-time filmmaker Bess Kargman provides a refreshing view of the art form, free of sensationalized fights and catty confrontations, in “First Position.”
The 94-minute documentary shadows six dancers at home and in the studio as they prepare for what could be considered the holy grail of dance competitions, the Youth America Grand Prix. Through a series of contests, thousands of dancers from around the world are whittled down to a couple hundred, who perform for scholarships and contracts with some of the field’s most esteemed schools and companies.
To Kargman’s credit, she didn’t just go with the cookie-cutter white, wealthy woman ballerina to follow. Instead, audiences get to know a 16-year-old from Columbia striving to pursue his dream in New York City, as well a brother-sister pair with differing passions for performing. They also meet a young woman from Philadelphia’s Rock School of Dance who was a war orphan from Sierra Leone, a bubbly blonde whose friends nicknamed her “Barbie” for her flexibility, and a pre-teen who continued his dance studies in Italy when his father’s career as a military doctor took the family overseas.
Through their stories, Kargman excels at illustrating that, as much as society tends to box ballerinas into a certain body type and background, dancers can come in all packages.
It’s also evident that Kargman infused the film with expertise obtained during her years as a dancer. Studio and stage scenes are captured in shots that show off dancers’ entire bodies, allowing viewers to feel as though they’re watching from the audience. These are interjected with clips of performers warming up in the wings or supporters on edge in their seats as their students and children promenade onto the stage.
“First Position” also teeters the right amount between technical content a dance enthusiast would appreciate and situations the greater viewership can relate to, such as coping with butterflies before a big day, lighting up in the presence of a crush and spending time with family. This approach extends the documentary’s reach, making it a film more about the determination and sacrifices it takes to tackle a dream – that just so happens to be told through the lens of dance – than a film primarily about dance that every so often nods at the universal themes of dreaming, trying and hopefully succeeding.
Picking half a dozen personalities to dissect was ambitious, and, for the most part, Kargman pulls it off, particularly in the first half of the film when she spends several minutes introducing each dancer and their families before moving on to the next. As the story progresses, she ping-pongs more frequently between personal narratives, making it easy to start to wonder whether she can keep the train on the tracks as it picks up speed. But what could have spiraled into a climactic catastrophe manages to stay on path, painting the picture with multiple drama-packed threads.
And in many ways, that’s what “First Position” – and the dance world in general – is: an opera of triumphs, tears and the tenacity to keep trying.