A gripping tale of kids in competition
Back in 2002, the spelling-bee movie “Spellbound” kicked off a run of kiddie-contest documentaries of which “First Position” is the latest example. It’s a foolproof genre: All you have to do is find a discipline (spelling, ballroom dancing, poetry slams, what have you), get a camera, and focus on a group of charismatic kids as they vie for one or more top spots. Bingo: instant drama.
Because its subjects are so driven and so talented, “First Position,” which is about ballet, is more gripping than the norm. The usual ambivalence a moviegoer might feel toward children whose skilled innocence is exploited on all fronts (by parents, coaches, contest administrators, even the filmmakers) is thrown off balance by the ferocious determination of the kids themselves. They know they’re denying themselves their own childhoods, but when they dance, you understand why.
The climactic event of the film is the Youth America Grand Prix, a rigorous annual competition in which dancers ages 8 through 19 are awarded prizes, scholarships, and (for the oldest contestants) contracts with major ballet companies. First-time director Bess Kargman — a Brookline native who herself trained at the Boston Ballet School — focuses on six young hopefuls as they compete in semifinals around the world and at the 2010 finals at New York’s City Center. Technically speaking, the film’s nothing special, but the subjects all seem powered by inner dynamos, and when they perform they leave youth far behind.
They come from various walks of life. The least exotic is willowy Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, a suburban “dancing princess” whose schoolmates call her “Barbie.” (She says it’s because she’s flexible and blond, but you wonder what they’re not telling her.) Aran Bell, 11, has the face of a Dickens orphan and the proud air of a born master; he comes from an Army family whose father willingly took a tour of duty in Kuwait to keep the kid with his teachers in Naples, Italy.
Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, left Colombia (where we’re told that “it’s not normal for a boy to be a ballet dancer”) to live in Queens and study in Manhattan; he has the body of a young Greek god and a sizable load of guilt whenever he talks to his parents back home, who are counting on him to lift the family fortunes.
Miko Fogarty, 12, comes from Palo Alto, Calif., and has a Japanese tiger mom who might be off-putting if her tiny daughter’s ambitions weren’t larger than hers. She also has a little brother, Jules, 10, who dances about half as well as Miko. Jules’s insistence on carving his own identity out of his mother’s plans for him is one of the film’s more moving subplots. The dancer you feel for most is Michaela DePrince, 14, adopted from war-torn Sierra Leone (where she saw her parents murdered) into a white Philadelphia family. She’s aware that “everybody knows black girls can’t dance ballet” yet still yearns to be like the graceful (white) dancer she saw on a magazine cover in her childhood.
“First Position” is about the inarticulate freedoms a gifted child finds in movement, to which the wishes of parents and teachers take a distant back seat. Kargman touches lightly on issues of finances and the physical tortures young dancers experience as a daily occurrence, and the film’s aware that most of the Grand Prix contestants will ultimately never dance professionally. Where does talent and passion turn into fixation, and when does a parent draw the line?
Mostly, though, “First Position” is about the sense of awe evoked by a body and mind working in absolute harmony. The film’s dance performances are phenomenal, so far are these children from the clomping inadequacies of the rest of us. Aran has a competition “girlfriend,” an Israeli girl named Gaya, who’s giggly and adolescent offstage and almost frighteningly self-possessed when she launches into a routine. “She becomes an adult when she dances,” her mother says with a mixture of pride and unease, and we share those sentiments.
If “First Position” has a flaw, it’s in Kargman’s rush to assure us that every one of her subjects is a winner one way or another; the abject despair of one anonymous young dancer with a career-ending foot injury is glimpsed and quickly turned away from. Little Jules has the strength of personality to realize that dancing’s not for him and that that’s fine, but what of the others who’ve traded their lives for dreams that don’t pan out? To which the film simply replies, look at the ones that do.