Ballet dancers sacrifice a lot to push themselves to the limits of human capability. Is this news to anyone? Bess Kargman, first-time director (and seemingly the rest of the crew) of First Position seems to think that it is. Dance involves as much physical exertion, training, and devotion as any professional sport, which will surprise precisely no one likely to see this documentary about the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition.
The five young dancers we focus on are all devoted; there’s no question about that. They’ve all had to make choices to pursue ballet rather than other things they might have done, although it only seems like a hard decision for Joan Sebastian Zamora, who sees his family in Colombia maybe a handful of times a year, living the rest of the time in New York City. Is he on a scholarship, or in some program? Kargman never really bothers to explain. This is simply where he is.
There is some attempt to inject some drama with the back-story of Michaela Deprince. That she was orphaned in the Sierra Leone civil war in the ’90s is indeed a tragedy, but again Kargman makes no attempt to actually tie this fact into Michaela’s current life with a well-off family in Philadelphia.
For the rest, the sacrifices we actually see are mostly on the part of the parents. Aran Bell’s father chose to a six-month tour in Kuwait rather than risk relocation to a base where his son couldn’t find ballet training nearby. As it is, Aran’s mother drives him two hours across Italy to his studio.
Rebecca Houseknecht lives a pink princess life in the McMansions of central Maryland; her family has already spent as much on her ballet training as they might on college for another child. Still, their first stop on reaching New York for the final competition is at Tiffany’s, so it’s pretty clear they have the money to burn.
Miko Fogarty’s father is a tech entrepreneur in California who literally moved his entire company so she could be closer to her ballet training. This is stated as simply a natural matter of fact. That almost no one has the wherewithal to do such a thing is not mentioned; whether all his employees should be asked to rearrange their lives to facilitate Miko’s training is not asked.
The idea of sacrifice on the part of the dancers is pretty much academic here. It’s brought up to create the idea of conflict, but it’s never explored. And really how could it be? they’re far too young to have any real perspective on their lives.
The idea of failure is similarly unexplored; the traumatic fallout from devoting so much time and energy to such a singular pursuit and then having that pursuit brought to an abrupt halt never comes up. The closest we really come is Miko’s brother, who never really had his heart in it anyway.
But really, despite its appearance, this is not a documentary about ballet, or even about ballet dancers. With one or two notable exceptions, all the actual performances are cut up with shots of the parents, coaches, and judges in the audience. The dancers themselves take up less than half the time when they’re finally doing what all this training leads up to.
And it’s this inability to just admit that the really important people to this story are just about everyone but the dancers that kills it. More than the MTV-reality-show editing, more than the mercurial and abrupt shifts in tone, and even more than the complete lack of any real critical viewpoint. Kargman is the big budget version of a proud parent standing with a camcorder in the audience, and First Position has all the interest of someone else’s home movies.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass, if it applies.