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USA 2011
Directed by
Bess Kargman
90 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

First Position

Synopsis: Six young and talented ballet dancers aged 9 to 16 prepare themselves for one of the most important and prestigious ballet competitions in the world – the Youth America Grand Prix.  

Yes First Position ls a doco, and no, you don’t have to like ballet to thoroughly enjoy this inspiring and uplifting film with some of the most amazing dancing that you’ll ever see from people so young.

When director Bess Kargman who had danced from very young until the age of 14 happened to see a final for the Youth America Grand Prix she was inspired to it the subject of her first feature film. And so comes a movie somewhat in the vein of Spellbound, introducing the audience to a variety of youngsters and following their progress towards the ultimate showdown. There it was a spelling bee, here it is a competition to award scholarships to worldwide dance colleges, job offers with dance companies, and encouragement awards for potential.  What you’ll see of the young people featured could possibly shatter many illusions you have about ballet and make you gasp in awe at the sheer beauty and agility of their young bodies.  

All the dancers featured have personalities that are magnetic and the backgrounds of their lives to date are fascinating. Aran is 11 and has been dancing since the age of 4. He speaks like a mini-adult, has a total obsession with dancing, yet still is keen on hobbies like skateboarding.  Michaela (14) was adopted from Sierra Leone as a tiny war refugee. She has a chunky build, atypical for a dancer, but is nonetheless athletic and graceful. Rebecca (17) has near-perfection in her ethereal looks. Joan Sebastian (16) has been sent by his family from Colombia, where men definitely don’t do ballet, to pursue his dream and a better life. Finally the siblings Miko and J.J. are the product of a seriously-driven Japanese mother whose life revolves around her children’s dancing. Also featured is a beautiful young Israeli dancer Gaya, who meets Aran at the semi-finals in Catania, Sicily, where they are smitten by each other in that delightful puppy-love way.

As we get to know these kids we confront the stereotypical ideas of ballet dancers – they are not gay, not anorexic, and not all the parents are slave-driving lunatics à la Black Swan. We also discover the rigorous physical demands of training, from foot stretchers, to nearly impossibly body contortions, through hours of training seven days a week. We are party to the injuries and pain they endure at such a tender age and we learn of the sacrifices, especially financial, that parents must make to help their kids fulfil their dreams. But it is the actual dancing that is so captivating in its exquisite incandescence . One asks oneself how are people so young able to interpret physical movement in such a poetic way?

Surprisingly, or not, there is a deep emotionality to this film but whether this comes from the director’s manipulation of our emotions or the sheer beauty of what we are witnessing is hard to say. The talent and tenacity of these children is inspiring, while the overall supportiveness and loving connections between all involved is a joy to see.




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