(2011) Documentary (IFC/Sundance Selects) Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer-Yemini, Michaela Deprince, Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Miko Fogarty, Rebecca Houseknecht, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Denys Ganio, Viktor Kabaniaev, Mia Deprince. Directed by Bess Kargman
I must first admit to not being a ballet aficionado. I don’t know a pas de deux from joie de vivre. I know my sister took lessons when I was a kid and I’ve seen productions of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker thanks to parents who hoped to (quite without effect, sadly) expand my horizons artistically speaking. Like opera, dance in general and ballet in particular never appealed to me.
Understandably, I wasn’t particularly eager to go see this documentary by first-time feature director Kargman as the subject matter didn’t appeal to me much. You may well have the same prejudice in that regard as I do. However, I’m here to tell you that you don’t have to love, or even know much about ballet in order to enjoy First Position.
The movie chronicles six young people ranging in age from ten to seventeen as they prepare for one of the premiere ballet competitions in the world – the Youth America Grand Prix. At stake are scholarships at prestigious academies (for younger participants) and even placements in world class ballet companies around the world. For many, this is the means to achieve a dream.
Aran (age 11) is a Navy brat, his father stationed in Italy. There, Aran is trained by a dour French instructor (Ganio) in Rome, a two hour drive from their home. His father arranged to be stationed there so that his son might continue to receive instruction. Even to an untrained eye like man, Aran has enormous potential. Graceful and precise, he makes complex moves look effortless. His dancing inspired Gaya, an Israeli, to take up ballet which is fortunate for she is a legitimate talent in her own right. She also has a major crush on Aran.
Michaela (age 14) was adopted by an elderly Jewish couple from Philadelphia from her home in war-torn Sierra Leone. A chance look at a dance magazine with a beautiful ballerina, nearly ecstatic with joy, seized Michaela’s imagination and turned her on the road to the YAGP. Along the way she must fight the mistaken perception that African-descended dancers lack the grace and elegance to be great ballet dancers – Michaela not only has grace and elegance, she has charm and wisdom as well. Her story is perhaps the most emotionally moving in the entire film.
Joan (age 16) lives in the violent Columbian city of Cali. Realizing early that he has a gift, his family sent him alone to New York City for further training. He misses his family terribly, and his family worries that he is eating too much American fast food (he’s not; most of his meals consist of rice, beans and some sort of protein mixed in). Joan, matinee idol handsome and with a spectacular body, looks to be a marquee dancer if only he can get noticed.
Miko (age 12) is a very talented dancer while her brother Jules (age 10) is less committed. Their mother is a combination of a stage mom and a Jewish mom; pushing both her children towards excellence. When both qualify for the semi-finals of the YAGP; when one of them chooses to drop ballet because it isn’t what they want to do with their lives, she is devastated. She and her Silicon Valley entrepreneur husband have moved from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek (about a two hour drive) to be closer to the ballet teacher Miko likes (her husband moved the business there as well which I’m sure didn’t sit too well with his employees). That teacher, Viktor, is impressed with Miko and amused by Jules who is more of a typical kid. Viktor isn’t afraid to override the instructions of the meddling mom from time to time.
Only Rebecca (age 17) fits the stereotype of the ballerina; feminine almost to a fault, pretty and blonde with a preference for all things pink, a cheerleader in school and a princess in all else. She lives in suburban Maryland and unlike most of the other kids who have devoted their lives to their art to the point where all of them are home schooled, Rebecca attends high school and pretty much has a normal life. That doesn’t diminish her desire to be a ballerina however and she is hoping desperately that the representatives of the ballet companies who are attending the YAGP will not only notice her looks but also her legitimate talent as well and offer her a job.
The film looks at the things that these kids do to pursue their dream; the injuries (one of the competitors severely injures their Achilles tendon on the eve of the finals in New York City), the ridicule from other kids (at least one of the children depicted here was pulled from attending public school because of it) and the dedication to hours and hours of practice which is oftentimes painful, leaving the kids exhausted and sore. Like Olympic athletes, these kids have a dream and their parents are willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.
It turns out that the YAGP helped select the kids for Kargman to follow (which she did for a year) which is a little bit disturbing – how objective were the filmmakers when it came to showing some of the negative aspects of these kinds of competition such as the stress that it puts on the kids and the financial strain it puts on families. However, it does show kids doing some amazing things – the five who compete in the finals are all incredible dancers, particularly Aran who steals the show whenever he is dancing.
I will say that this doesn’t really inspire me to get season tickets to the Orlando Ballet Theatre, or to seek out performances on DVD or PBS. However, it does give me a new-found respect for the kids who work as hard as any athlete to succeed – and the families that sacrifice to give them the opportunity.
NOTE: While the film played at the Florida Film Festival last month, I was unable to see it. It is playing at the Enzian today and tomorrow.
REASONS TO GO: Some breathtaking moments of dance. Engaging kids are not only photogenic but articulate as well.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes seems like a bit of an advertisement for the YAGP.
FAMILY VALUES: Generally suitable for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kargman took ballet lessons and considered dancing professionally until she was 14, when she chose to pursue other interests.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/30/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are stellar.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spellbound
COSTUME LOVERS: The tutus and costumes are varied; Aran’s for example are made for him by a professional costumer in Chicago, while Michaela’s are made by her mom. Joan wears only a simple pair of tights.
FINAL RATING: 7/10