Friday, April 20, 2012


Directed by: Bess Kargman
Starring: Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer Yemini, and Michaela DePrince
Synopsis: Documentary following 6 young ballet dancers as they train for the Youth America Grand Prix.

With the emergence of reality shows like So You Think You Can Dance and America's Best Dance Crew, the art of dancing is becoming more and more mainstream. However, with this push to more modern styles, traditional ballets like Coppelia, Don Quixote, and Swan Lake are becoming an endangered species. Classical ballet companies aren't bringing in the money they use to, so it's becoming increasingly difficult for young dancers to find jobs.

FIRST POSITION follows six young dancers vying to perform at the The Youth America Grand Prix, which is a scholarship competition for dancers ages 9-18. Based on their performances, dancers can get offers for summer programs, scholarships, and even contracts to ballet companies. This is a chance of a lifetime. Though they vary in both social and economic backgrounds, all of these kids and their families have made sacrifices for their art. There’s Aran, 11, an American boy part of a military family in Italy; Rebecca, 17, the typical rich, blonde-haired, girl-next-door; Joan Sebastian, 16, a Colombian who left his family to train in NYC; Michaela, 14, adopted as an toddler from war torn Sierra Leon; Miko, 12, driven by an Asian stage mother and sister to Jules, 10, who doesn’t have the heart or technique of his sister.

Some have gone through financial crunches while one family uprooted their private business so their daughter would have less of a commute to her studio. Director Bess Kargman keeps us memorized with these struggles and the pressure the kids face not only from themselves but, in one case in particular, from their parents. Our hearts break as Michaela suffers from a debilitating injury on the eve of the competition. Her tenacity and spirit is contagious, and she displays maturity so far beyond her years in dealing with her situation that I kept forgetting she was 14. Her story is a perfect example of the years of abuse these kids put on their bodies; they work and perform through sickness and injury after injury. And we see the tole it takes on the parents too. Even though Miko and Jules' mother initially comes off as your typical stage mom (and she still is), you can see the passion for her kids behind her eyes. She never took dance, but when her children became interested, she bought books to help her learn the language, so she could help them at home.

If I could fault the documentary on anything it would be not emphasizing the amount of time these kids have spent preparing for this moment. Not just this competition, but during their whole dancing career. Rebecca has been able to balance school and dance during the week, but on the flip side, Miko has become so engrossed in perfecting her technique, she has to be home schooled. Maybe she will look back and regret not having a "real" childhood, or maybe all this hard work will pay of when she's of age for a ballet contract. A risky gamble for tween.

Overall, I was absolutely charmed by this film. It never dragged, and I was excited for these kids to get to the competition. And the film features all of their performances, and their dances are just breathtaking. Kargman didn't find just any Jo Schmo dancers to follow. I can only imagine what could be possible if most kids nowadays even had half the dedication that these students have.

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