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REVIEW

First Position

By Philip Martin

This article was published June 8, 2012 at 2:37 a.m.

— At the recent Little Rock Film Festival, Lea Thompson remembered how her dreams of becoming a ballerina were shattered by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who consigned her to the second team of the American Ballet Theater because, he said, she was “too stocky” for the varsity.

“I weighed about 90 pounds at the time,” Thompson said. She soon decided to give acting a shot.

The lesson is that it’s extremely difficult to be a dancer, and that hard work and even talent can take you only so far. Bess Kargman’s documentary First Position reminds of the long odds and inherent unfairness of the Hobbesian world of high-level ballet.

Kargman, a first-time filmmaker, was an aspiring prima herself until she recognized her limitations at age 14, and she brings a welcome empathy to this programmatic film that follows six hopefuls as they compete in something called the Youth America Grand Prix, which we’re told is the most comprehensive ballet competition in the world. Winners of the contest - open to dancers from 9 to 19 years old from all over the world - go on to scholarships or professional contracts. The losers presumably go the way of Lea Thompson and Bess Kargman, which is to say, we needn’t be too worried about them, though they’ve just had their dreams crushed.

Taking its cue from contest documentaries like 2002’s Spellbound (about the National Spelling Bee) and 2006’s Wordplay (about competitive crossword solvers), First Position follows six subjects from around the world as they prepare for and contend in the competition. There’s Michaela, a 14-year old orphan from war-torn Sierra Leone; Joan, a 16-year old who has left his family in Colombia (where it’s “not normal” for a boy to want to dance) to pursue his dancing dreams in New York; Miko, a driven 12-year-old girl from California, and her less motivated younger brother, Jules; Rebecca, a 17-year-old, whose classmates have nicknamed her “Barbie”; and 11-year-old Aran, whose father, a soldier in the U.S. Army, forgoes stateside rotation and volunteers for an extra tour of duty in Kuwait so his son can keep training with his trainer in Italy.

Technically, the film is nothing special, but these sort of documentaries live and die with their characters, and Kargman has selected some compelling stories. All the kids are likable, interesting subjects, and a couple of the subplots are genuinely moving.

Refreshingly, Kargman touches on the physical and financial hardships inherent in pursuing a ballet career lightly, while evoking our awe for the capacities and resiliency of her young subjects. Let someone else worry about whether these sorts of competitions are good for them or not - it’s clear they matter to these kids, who’ve developed super competency in their chosen field. And there’s something worth celebrating in excellence - even if it doesn’t make you rich.

First Position 86

Cast: Documentary, with Aran Bell, Jules Fogerty, Miko Fogerty, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht, Gaya Bommer Yemini, Michaela DePrince, Denys Ganio, Viktor Kabaniaev

Director: Bess Kargman

Rating: Not rated

Running time: 94 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 06/08/2012

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