The documentary First Position chronicles the journey of seven young dancers through the semi-final and final rounds of the Youth America Grand Prix. The film’s subjects range from age nine to age 17. They ride in Jaguars through Palo Alto, CA for private lessons; they ride the subway home to graffiti-slapped Queens, NY. They are girly-girls, military kids, and war orphans.
What these students have in common is love for their work and dreams of success. The ones who stand out as truly special are infectiously passionate about the work they get to do in order to achieve that dream. They are an inspiration to their peers, to their families, and to their teachers and coaches.
First Position does a thorough job of presenting the sacrifices and challenges these young dancers face, as well as their passion and their triumph. It also affords interesting perspective from some of the YAGP judges concerning the place and purpose of competitions in the ballet world. Happily, the overall consensus at YAGP seems to be that competitions exist to provide exposure to young dancers. They are a stepping-stone, not an end goal, and certainly not an occasion to objectively quantify students’ abilities. That message is emphasized by a closing shot of the Royal Ballet School’s “Bridge of Aspiration.”
This film carries an air of cool suspense throughout, and a certain matter-of-factness appropriate to a documentary about such tough, driven young people. That’s not to say it’s without moments of humor, emotion, and warmth—especially funny are shots of 11-year-old Aran Bell on his Pogo stick and of coach Viktor Kabanaiev wincing and guffawing at nine-year-old Jules Fogarty’s botched tours and pirouettes. Well-depicted, also, are the special bonds between students and coaches.
First Position is directed by Bess Kargman. It has won awards at national and international film festivals in 2011 and 2012. Extensive information about this excellent documentary is available on the film’s website, www.balletdocumentary.com.