Never putting a foot wrong, tyro helmer Bess Kargman’s touching, enormously satisfying docu “First Position” follows six gifted ballet students from disparate social, regional, economic and ethnic backgrounds as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious competition where the world’s top dance companies and schools prospect for new talent. Poised for breakout success, the pic combines the built-in drama, tension and suspense of docus such as “Spellbound” with exciting, beautifully lensed variations performed by the virtuosos of the future. Pic is pirouetting with potential buyers following its Toronto fest world preem.
Every year, more than 5,000 aspiring dancers worldwide, ages 9-19, enter the Grand Prix, hoping to win scholarships, kudos and job contracts. Out of that number, only 300 make it into the New York City finals.
Although all six of helmer Kargman’s subjects have sacrificed a so-called “normal” childhood for their art, and share tenacity, dedication and maturity beyond their years, their backstories differ vastly. The pic intelligently delves into their home lives, spending time with them and their families so that viewers can understand what has shaped them.
Adopted from an orphanage in Sierra Leone as a tot by a warmly supportive Jewish family in Philadelphia, Michaela DePrince, 14, matter-of-factly shares recollections of her birth parents’ murder and of being unable to save a teacher dismembered by rebel soldiers. She longs to prove that black ballerinas can be as delicate and graceful as any others.
Serious Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, from Cali, Colombia, trains in New York under the tutelage of a former American Ballet Theater dancer. Every time he calls home, he is reminded about the sacrifices his parents make on his behalf and their high expectations of him.
Beautiful, blonde all-American princess Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, from suburban Maryland, appears to have it all: looks, talent and the perfect ballet body. She aspires to join a professional company rather than attend college, even though such jobs are increasingly scarce.
Half-Japanese Miko Fogarty, 12, from Palo Alto, Calif., also wants to be a professional, an aspiration that her mother tries to force on her younger brother, Jules, even though he lacks his sister’s artistry and interest.
Meanwhile, Aran Bell, 11, won’t allow anything to prevent him from dancing. The son of a navy doctor, he travels two hours every day from his father’s military base to Rome in order to train with Denys Ganio, former principal dancer of the Ballet Marseilles.
Rounding out Kargman’s pool of well-chosen subjects is astonishingly emotive Israeli pixie Gaya Bommer Yemini, also 11 and equally adept in ballet and modern dance. She’s Bell’s best friend on the competition circuit and the daughter of noted Israeli choreographer Nadine Bommer.
As the articulate youngsters evince personality, poise and passion as well as physical grace and a necessary resilience, their parents and instructors provide another perspective on the true costs for them to follow their dreams (and in their varied attitudes toward the success of their offspring, the adults also provide much of the film’s humor).
Helmer Kargman, once a young dancer herself, demonstrates ample knowledge of and passion for ballet life. Her crisply shot, smartly assembled pic provides, without pandering, an inspiring human-interest story that will hold up well under repeat viewings. Final credits bring viewers up to date with the subjects’ lives post-Grand Prix.