While I can’t necessarily call myself a documentary nut, I do enjoy the occasional educational film, especially when it not only broadens my knowledge on a subject, but also entertains me in a way that a scripted, theatrical production would. Such was the case with the documentary First Position, a film about aspiring young ballet dancers. Though documentaries typically have the propensity to bore me to tears, there was something strikingly different about this one. Not necessarily in the aesthetics, but most certainly in the story that was told about the young people whose dreams of one day dancing for a prestigious ballet company hang in the balance of a five-minute performance.
The film follows the lives of six dancers, ranging in ages ten to seventeen. Each dancer, though their situations vastly different, poses a striking similarity in comparison to the others, as all desperately seek to excel and earn high marks at the Youth America Grand Prix, the most highly recognizable worldwide competition for aspiring dancers. Thousands of young dancers attempt to enter the competition each year, with fourteen tryouts taking place globally. However, only a small hand full are admitted entrance to the finals in New York City, with an even smaller group being awarded the coveted scholarships or apprenticeships to prestigious schools and theaters.
Something I appreciated when watching the film was the variety of dancers that were being featured – different ages, different situations, different levels of talent, varied background, and interesting stories. One of my favorites was eleven-year-old Aran, whose military family sought to find the best ballet training for him no matter where they were stationed, even if it meant a two-hour drive each way. In fact, sacrifice was one of the common themes in this documentary.
While I know many families sacrifice so their kids can play a sport or do an activity that is costly, I highly doubt any of them incur the cost that these families do. From private instruction and studio rentals to entry fees and travel costs, not to mention the costumes (a well-made tutu costs upwards of $1500, and pointe shoes that often last for only one day are $80 a pop), these families are shelling out some major cash for what they hope won’t just end up being another trashed hobby. Ten-year-old Jules, for instance, took ballet along with his incredibly talented sister Miko. Unfortunately, Jules, after many years of private lessons and competitions, decided that he didn’t have the passion for ballet that his sister did.
In addition to the monetary sacrifices that are made for children who are interested in ballet, there are also physical sacrifices that are made. Unfathomable injuries that could end a young career are a constant stressor for dancers who strive to make this passion a life-long profession. Fourteen-year-old Michaela nearly passed on the opportunity of a lifetime to protect her Achilles tendon from tearing, should she push it too hard during a performance.
The performances themselves were some of the best parts of this movie. It was absolutely breathtaking to watch some of these dancers and the strength that they have to perform the incredibly difficult moves. There were many dancers present in the theater, and listening to their reactions reaffirmed my understanding of how talented the dancers on screen truly were.
In addition to the performance scenes, there were many scenes devoted to getting to know each dancer individually – a little bit about their background, and some of their stories were incredibly inspiring and wholly moving. Sixteen-year-old Joan Sebastian moved to America from Columbia, in hopes that he would be able to become a professional dancer – his dream to one day dance for the Royal British Theater. It was heartbreaking to know that he left his family for over a year, hoping to be able to someday support them the only way he knows how.
Family is another common theme that carries throughout the movie, and the previously mentioned Michaela is an example of someone who would have not been given the opportunity to dance were it not for the willingness of some to grow their family by way of adoption. Michaela and her sister were adopted from Sierra Leone during the midst of the civil war that was going on in the early nineties. Affected with vitiligo (a skin condition – Michael Jackson was known to have dealt with this condition), Michaela was many times passed over for adoption because the misinformed masses thought she was a “devil baby.” Luckily, Michaela was welcomed into a loving home. She said she was interested in ballet because of a photo she saw of a ballerina when she was living at the orphanage in Africa.
Something that struck me as interesting when hearing Michaela’s story was the unfortunate fact that racism is still heavily present, especially in the dancing community. Michaela’s mother has to dye all of the undergarments for her daughter to match her skin tone, because the “flesh” colored garments were not made in a flesh color that matched Michaela’s chocolate-colored skin. As well, Michaela noted that many times she has been told that “everyone knows black girls can’t dance ballet,” because they are not graceful enough, or their bodies are too muscular. Truthfully, Michaela’s performances were some of the most beautiful and moving I have ever seen, and her strength was a huge part of her ability to perform some of the incredibly difficult moves – ones that many more seasoned ballet dancers couldn’t approach.
While I certainly loved the stories that were told in this movie, I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed by the way it was shot. Many of the performance scenes were grainy and poorly lit, and while I understand they were dealing with what ambient light they were provided, sometimes the shots felt more like a home movie than a professional documentary. Still, many of the cuts that were done in post-production really paid off in giving a dramatic edge to the final scenes, as the dancers awaited the results of the Grand Prix. The ending is another piece of this movie I have qualms with, and mostly because instead of ending well and then providing follow up, the movie ended strangely and abruptly, then additional shots with on-screen text were added after ten seconds into the credits.
Overall, I found the meat of this documentary to be quite educational and a very interesting look into a topic I don’t know a whole lot about. While it was definitely entertaining and insightful, I can’t say it’s something I would have gone to see on my own free will – still, if you are a dancer, enjoy ballet, or are one of those people who just enjoy the more educational flick, it’s not a bad choice for something to see this weekend.
First Position - 7/10