For the young dancers at the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world's most prestigious ballet competitions, lifelong dreams are at stake. With hundreds competing for a handful of elite scholarships and contracts, practice and discipline are paramount, and nothing short of perfection is expected. First Position follows six young dancers as they prepare for a chance to enter the world of professional ballet, struggling through bloodied feet, near exhaustion and debilitating injuries all while navigating the drama of adolescence.
A group of kids with ambitions and limited opportunities is a well-worn documentary formula. It’s been done to death on television and yet somehow, some of these documentaries motivate people to put the remote down and actually go to the cinema! Hoop Dreams cheered working class underdogs and Spellbound provided the delightful spectacle of adults mouthing the letters to words that on-screen children were asked to spell. This time it’s ballet. And any film buff fan of The Red Shoes knows that ballet is a ruthless business that calls for drive and perfectionism from the dancer and all surrounding them. It’s not for wimps.
It’s a pity that such perfection and proficiency is documented in such a poor fashion.
The structure of First Position is provided by the Youth America Grand Prix. (The double entendre title comes from a fundamental ballet stance that requires heels together and both sets of toes pointing in opposite directions to form a straight line.) This competition has semi-finals around the world and a final dance-off in New York where up to 30 contestants can pirouette off with a dancing contract or a $50,000 scholarship.
The film assembles some very likeable kids. There’s no one here you couldn’t feel some degree of sympathy for including supportive parents and charming teachers. As most of its subjects advance to the New York finals, the film chooses not just nice kids, but talented contestants too who dance their hearts out as they exhibit extraordinary physical prowess. It’s a pity that such perfection and proficiency is documented in such a poor fashion.
This debut of director Bess Kargman has that red-button aura of shooting almost anything with the hope that it will somehow all come together in the editing room. It doesn’t. It feels uneven. The film travels to Colombia with talented Joan Sebastien Zamora, but despite the stark difference between his rural beginnings and his digs in Manhattan, almost everything we see is apparent from an earlier phone call from his mother, while he was in New York.
Another fumble is the backstory of Michaela DePrince. Michaela talks of her harrowing childhood in war-torn Sierra Leone, but the film cuts into the middle of her disclosure. Her face is suddenly covered in tears and there is no sense of her story building up. The film just thrusts us into her history before we get a chance to empathise or sense what it means to her emotionally – even if her pain is obvious to see.
In the film’s messiest moments, unidentified strangers – presumably other parents – and fragments of the stories of other contesting children suddenly appear, like fragments swept off the cutting room floor and inserted because they were handy.
Worse of all is the filmmaker’s attempt to create drama by overlaying the whole shebang with didactic music that instructs the audience how and what to feel at any given time. This counter-productive technique merely heightens the film’s dramatic emptiness.
As ballet is a fascinating subject, the First Position will have its fans. But it takes more than a winning formula and a great subject to make a strong documentary. A filmmaker also has to do it justice.