These are some of the the stereotypes that come to mind when I think of the world of up-and-comers in ballet: The kids chain smoke cigarettes to stanch their giant appetites, since eating itself has become a paradox, providing the energy to dance but preventing a dancer from achieving that necessary, superhuman litheness. They’re all alternately catty, cold, and Machiavellian with their peers, since competition for positions in prominent dance companies is desperate and fierce. And they’re pushed by parents who instill in them the instinct to succeed, to dance beautifully at any cost, the most notable of which is whatever joy they might have otherwise experienced in childhood.
First Position — saddled though it is with a predictable, cloying score (not to be confused with the frequently-heard classical music used for the ballet within the film) and the irritating habit of cramming too many lines into any given segment — is a pleasant rebuke to the stereotype of childhood ruined by ballet. It’s a heartfelt movie with a sincere love of dance and when given a smidgen of breathing room, it exhales into an unobtrusive portrait of talented young dancers and their parents.
Aran, a cherubic 11-year-old with more natural talent than his seasoned dance instructor has ever seen, is a Navy brat whose father has stationed him and the family in Naples — not a bad location for a boy trying to master ballet. His dad, a Navy doctor (whose ostensibly masculine profession doesn’t stop him from being proud of seeing his son in tights) pushes his employer to secure himself posts where his son will be able to dance. Michaela, a 16-year-old former refugee from Sierra Leone (where her parents were murdered in a civil war), is fighting the notion that black dancers are only suited for bulky, villainous roles. Her adopted mother, Elaine, painstakingly dyes all of her leotards brown and is willing to break the bank to see that she has the chance to break out of her typecast. Also 16, Joan Sebastian, a Latin Adonis from Colombia, ekes out a meager existence in a Queens hole-in-the-wall while studying dance in Manhattan with the money sent by his parents, still toiling away in Colombia. These three are the most fascinating of the six teen dancers that First Position zips across the screen.
The remaining three, less compelling and less driven, are: Rebecca, a self-avowed “princess” from Palo Alto, California (“My nickname at school is Barbie because I can bend in difficult directions, and I love pink, and I have blonde hair”); and a sister-brother duo of rich kids, Miko and Jules (the former has talent, the latter does not). The princess and the siblings all have parents who seem as dedicated to their kids’ happiness (the siblings’ mother, in particular, makes a delicately balanced lifestyle out of prodding her progeny) as those of the Navy brat, the refugee, and the Colombian, but the film makes easier heroes out of the latter trio: they clearly have more talent and far more to lose if they don’t succeed.
Director Bess Kargman — a journalist, documentarian, and former ballet performer — combines footage of the young dancers’ rehearsals for the most climactic event of their lives, a New York ballet competition dubbed the Youth America Grand Prix (winning a trophy there all but guarantees a young dancer’s placement at one of the world’s best dance academies), with montages of the teens gorging on fast food, mending fractured foot bones, and insisting that they’re just as happy as other children. From the footage of the kids backstage as they psych each other out and calm themselves down in preparation for their auditions, it’s apparent that competition for placement in dance schools is intense.
The reason First Position is something more than a snapshot of kids forced to compete is that it avoids the editing trickery that so many documentaries use to fabricate good vs. evil conflicts (think The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). Most documentaries about competition are textbook examples of Godard’s dictum that every edit is a lie, but Kargman, even when she tries, finds it hard to lie while she’s recording the awed parents who encourage their talented offspring to be great (because there is nothing else to do when talent has clearly been given to a person you love). First Position is too cluttered and unfocused to succeed as a definitive portrait of children’s ballet, but when it focuses on the families, it’s close to heartbreaking.