First Position: A Documentary That Stays On Point

In her sweetly soft-shoe directorial debut, documentarian Bess Kargman paints a portrait of ambitious young dancers in a highly competitive world

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Bess Kargman

Rebecca Houseknecht

If First Position, director Bess Kargman’s upbeat documentary about young ballet dancers competing in the ultimate jeté-off, the Youth America Grand Prix, were a television series called American Tutu or Dancing with Future Stars, I’d watch it religiously. It’s not just the level of athleticism and grace—although Black Swan’s Nina Sayers has nothing on these kids—that would keep me riveted week to week, it’s the compelling stories behind the talent. At least half of these young dynamos and their families, all vying for coveted scholarships and spots in ballet companies, could brighten the most forlorn perspective on the state of the American dream.

In topic it calls to mind Jill Krementz’s much-loved photo-heavy book set at the School of American Ballet, A Very Young Dancer, which a whole generation of young girls pored over after its 1976 publication. (For me, Krementz’s book was crack you could get with a library card.) But there is a modern twist. First Position introduces the competitors, explores their background in the most appealing light and then heads into the contest itself, a tried and true narrative approach that has worked for everything from Spellbound to television’s American-Idol. But while it is less cinematically innovative than last year’s dance documentary darling Pina, with its 3-D excitement and its en plein air dancing, first-time director Kargman triumphs by picking characters who largely defy expectations — however unfair it may be to still think of waifish, pink-clad girls in tutus and Russian men in tights when thinking of ballet dancers.

(READ: A review of 2011’s acclaimed dance documentary, Wim Wenders’ Pina)

Kargman does include one blonde princess who looks like she pirouetted off the top of a music box—she is nonchalant in her admission that her high school classmates call her “Barbie”—and a 12 year-old girl whose Tiger Mom has the whole family on a low-fat diet to keep her light as feather. But the kids who emerge as First Position’s most captivating stars are the ones who come from the most surprising places. There’s the boy whose dad took a bleak military posting in order to give him the best teacher, a teenager who grew up in poverty in Colombia and a girl orphaned by civil war in West Africa.

The competitor who seems most destined for greatness is 11-year-old Aran Bell, who started ballet lessons at 4 and now demonstrates a level of talent and skill that is  even a ballet neophyte would have a hard time missing. Young Aran says he loves ballet “so much that it’s hard to explain.” He’s a slim child who nonetheless gives off the impression of great sturdiness, and looks as much at home showing off his bb gun as his medieval-looking toe-stretching device. His father, Ryan, had a choice of a desk job in the States or a tour in Kuwait and opted for the latter, (he calls Kuwait “a small price to pay”) so that Aran could live near a navy base in Naples, Italy, with his mother and study with Denys Ganio in Rome. Ganio, a retired member of the Paris Opera Ballet, recognizes Aran’s talent: “If we have one or two like him in our life, that’s a lot.”

Aran’s main obstacle to ballet success—as is the case for many of the kids featured in First Position—is peer pressure. “We’ve heard lots of stories about boys that dance that get into junior high and quit because of the relentless teasing and the stereotypes,” his father Ryan says. “So far he’s strong enough to understand that those types of people are not worth listening to.”

In New Jersey a decade ago, Elaine DePrince and her adopted daughter Michaela, heard from their own set of naysayers, in casually racist conversations. Black girls were “too muscular” to be classical ballerinas was a common refrain spoken by acquaintances. Even the costume shops, with their pale “flesh”-colored undergarments continue to send unwelcoming vibes.

“It’s a miracle I’m here,” Michaela says gravely, but she’s not talking about her musculature. Fourteen at the time First Position was filmed, Michaela was born in Sierra Leone in the midst of civil war. Her father was murdered and her mother died of starvation. Violence was a constant factor in her life. “One time I tried to save my teacher,” Michaela says. “But I kind of like blacked out and they just cut her arms and legs off and just left her there.”

(READ: Black Swan, Natalie Portman’s Oscar Moment?)

She languished at an orphanage, unwanted because vitiligo had left her with white spots on her neck and collarbone and earned her the nickname “devil’s child.” Elaine and her husband Charles heard of Michaela’s plight while adopting another daughter and decided to bring both of them home. Michaela came with a dream to dance, inspired by a photograph of a ballerina in a magazine she’d seen at the orphanage. After her first recital at age 6, she asked her mother if she could see her spots from the audience. Not at all, Elaine answered. “Then I know I can be a professional ballerina,” Michaela told her.

If you are a faithful watcher of Dancing with the Stars, just last week you could have seen an informal coda to First Position, which certainly lends the impression that Kargman was astute in picking future stars. But First Position doesn’t downplay the possibility of failure—some of these kids won’t be the corps de ballet of a regional company, let alone have a chance at becoming household names. The film includes some painfully realistic truths, like the cost of  toe shoes ($85 for a pair that might last a day? That could get you a whole season of Little League). Yet it’s no Black Swan, which made ballet seem like a warped and warping art form. This is a valentine to the art, just like Krementz’s book, and about as irresistible.