If, within the universe of ballet movies, there is an antithesis to Black Swan, First Position may be it. This straightforward documentary by first-time director Bess Kargman is almost suspiciously benign in comparison to Darren Aronofsky’s psycho-melodrama.
The months leading up to the Youth America Grand Prix in New York form the narrative spine of the documentary, which chronicles the lives of six child dancers as they prepare for a competition that has come to mean the world to them. In this respect, the film is like most ballet movies, in that it’s about striving. Serious, baby-faced 11-year-old Aran tells us how he loves ballet more than anything in the world. “You have to sacrifice,” his Naval officer father says. When 14-year-old Michaela is rehearsing on an injured Achilles tendon, she says her teachers know that she “won’t stop.” Positioned next to her math homework, 12-year-old Miko tells us she thinks she’s had “just the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.” And 16-year-old Joan Sebastian has left his family in Colombia to train in New York; over the phone, his parents repeat a boilerplate script about how making it as a dancer is his only way out of the poverty he’d face at home.
But for all that it displays about these children’s lives and the rarified world they inhabit, First Position could be a promotional film for the International Ballet Society. We learn that the dancers are remarkable athletes and dedicated students. We marvel as they execute impossible contortions and stretch their bodies to the limit, as they endure long hours and the brutality of the en pointe shoes.
“People don’t really know how hard it is to make it as a dancer,” says one instructor. But we do know. We’ve seen it in Robert Altman’s quietly observant The Company and the formulaic Center Stage. We’ve watched Natalie Portman dement herself into an obsessive wraith in Black Swan and Moira Shearer renounce her life in The Red Shoes, and it’s difficult to forget the unnamed ballerina in The Company whose career ends with a snapped tendon. We’ve seen this story in other documentaries, too, in Donya Feuer’s The Dancer, for instance, or Bertrand Normand’s Ballerina.
The difference in Kargman’s film may be her subjects’ youth. There’s something astounding in watching a tiny 11-year-old boy turn a flawless foutté over and over, or a whippet-thin 12-year-old move her legs like clockwork in battement. The incongruence of such physical self-possession in bodies otherwise so unformed suggests some kind of story, something to be uncovered. Unfortunately, Kargman’s arresting footage of these children isn’t equaled by her interviews, the primary form besides dance that she uses to develop their characters.
The dancers, along with as their parents and coaches, remain on message about the sacrifices they’ve made, how this life was their own choice, and how they love dance more than anything in the world. They’re all single-minded and hardworking, they get nervous before performing, and they want to be professional dancers. If we can’t exactly blame them for being so focused, we might wish for a few more unscripted moments of the type that turn up in another documentary about child-strivers, 2002’s Spellbound, which features spot-on footage of face-scrunching and wincing and nail-biting. The children in First Position are trained to be perfectionists, but I couldn’t help feeling that some less structured footage of their lives would be more revealing than another interview about goals and sacrifice.
The documentary culminates at the pinnacle of youth ballet competition in New York. One by one, we watch Kargman’s subjects take the stage for this final judgment. But the awards they garner feel like a foregone conclusion. Kargman has presented us with such a benevolent picture of this world that we can only assume all their hard work will be rewarded.
Because we’ve followed the children for months, these concluding moments of performance should feel freighted with the lives they have off-stage. The dancers, in voice-over and interviews, keep emphasizing the importance of these few minutes on stage, as they represent their futures, their careers, their sacrificed childhoods. It’s a shame, that we’ve never truly seen them off-stage.