“First Position” LOOKS FOR THE STORIES BEHIND BALLET COMPETITIONS

Bess Kargman’s documentary film, “FIRST POSITION”, lays out the stories of seven young ballet dancers vying for recognition, scholarships and company contracts in the annual Youth America Grand Prix. The film takes an honest and sympathetic look at the world of pre-professional ballet competition as each competitor makes his way through the year-long competition. It is made all the more honest by the focus on two of the dancers, Michaela DePrince and Joan Sebastian Zamora, whose personal stories and single-minded dedication to dance are the inspirational center of the film. Michaela, an adopted war refugee from Sierra Leone and Joan, a boy from Cali, Colombia, are both fastened on chasing their dreams through ballet.  At the center of those dreams are the YAGP competition, and the boost that winning can give them. The documentary is Kargman’s first film.

This is not a ballet documentary in in the usual sense, where the restrictive, school-of-hard knocks ballet world is relentlessly front and center, but rather one in which the stories of the seven dancers, their teachers and their parents coalesce  through an involving narrative that leaves you buoyed up and moved in equal measure.  In style, “FIRST POSITION” relies on the fairly standard collage techniques of documentary film but, from the beginning, Kargman, a former student dancer herself, chips away successfully at a number of classical ballet’s stereotypes in telling her story. Michaela, who is, in fact, an astonishingly expressive and accomplished dancer, knows she is flying into a strong headwind with her dreams to dance, eventually, as a principal in “Swan Lake” but she also stuns us with her generosity and big spirit when she says she is determined to return to Sierra Leone and establish a school for dance there someday. Joan is fastened on a scholarship opportunity and the hope of joining the Royal Ballet, like his idol, the Cuban dancer, Carlos Acosta. He knows success in the competition is his ticket out a dead-end life in Cali. He is supported by his family while he trains in New York City for the competition.

The remaining five dancers Aran Bell, Miko and Jules Fogarty, Gaya Bommer and Rebecca Houseknecht all give us different takes on the lives and struggles of young pre-professional dancers. They range in age from 11 to 17.  Kargman says she has selected them because their “stories were so compelling that even if everyone tanked, the audience would still leave the theater feeling moved and inspired”. There is in fact some tanking and moments in which the dancers deal with severe injuries and other setbacks. But in the end, all of Kargman’s subjects manage to find some kind of success. It is perhaps an unrealistic bending of the story that challenges the prevailing stereotype that ballet produces many more losers than winners.  

The film, which edits together studio sequences, competition clips and sequences of home life, is efficiently edited by Kate Amend. There are lots of details to manage here but the story never flags as all of the contestants are brought to the scratch line for the suspenseful finals at City Center in New York.  There is also some exceptional camera work by Nick Higgins, who is for a few moments, turned loose on the City Center stage to capture moments from behind the participants as they dance.

Also making engaging and at times humorous additions to the story’s narrative is Miko Fogarty’s ballet teacher and choreographer, Victor Kabaniaev, who appears in numerous segments. His interactions with Miko, and her family provide the most complete picture in the film of the collective effort that goes into launching a professional dancer.  In an interview Kabaniaev said that the YAGP is well set up as competitions go, but he acknowledged that “competitions do not really have much to do with the art” of ballet. Kabaniaev, whose work has had national and international exposure has had a kind of Midas touch when it comes to developing young ballet talent. The film underplays the important role of choreographers in contributing exceptional material for showcasing the dancer’s abilities.

“FIRST POSITION”, produced by Kargman and Rose Caiola, is distributed by Sundance Selects and was shown at the Toronto Film Festival. Chris Hajian composed the additional music for the film. The sequences touching on flamenco nuevo, which accompanied the vignettes with Sebastian Zamora, were especially evocative. “FIRST POSITION” will screen at the Laemmle Theaters in Los Angeles.

The following are links to works by Viktor Kabaniaev:

“LARGO” (Celebrate Dance 2007) http://youtu.be/r0zAyXhsjp8?t=1m58s

“Episodes Of” (Celebrate Dance 2008) http://youtu.be/lBGNZHHtlhc?t=4m8s

“WHITE LIGHT” (Celebrate Dance 2006) http://youtu.be/vSy6nmXG5LM?t=2m30s

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