Louis’ Review of The Documentary ‘First Position’

The Youth America Grand Prix is an annual student ballet competition open to dance students 8-19 years old. First Positionfollows six ballet dancers as they train to compete in this, one of the most prestigious youth ballet competitions in the world. An international cast of dancers is featured with unprecedented access to their lives and their training showing us all of the triumphs and tragedies of this life they have chosen.

This type of competition differs greatly from the child beauty pageants that have become so popular on television in the last few years. While child beauty pageant competitions are fueled and funded through wealthy parents living vicariously through their children, ballet is a much more difficult and dedicated endeavor.  Much like one cannot become a concert pianist, or painter, except through hard work, ballet requires a much larger amount of work and ambition on the part of the performers than beauty pageants.

The beauty of ballet is underscored by years of dedication and hard work. Work that begins at a fairly young age, with the parents as much responsible for the success or failure of a dancer as the dancer themselves. Committing as a parent to the time and expense of ballet training is no easy task, yet we are introduced to several parents who have taken up the task and are willing to do whatever it takes to allow their children to become world-class dancers. How much these children have chosen this, versus being pushed into it, becomes quite clear early in the film. The diverse group shown is dedicated to the art of ballet dancing. The varied backgrounds of the children are explored as they discuss where and how they came to dancing, as well as what they hope to achieve through dancing.

Director Bess Kargman focuses the film squarely on the competition. Even though competition between the dancers is intense, the director makes it more about self-awareness and personal triumph. By shifting the focus away from some of the more negative aspects of these types of competitions, the dancers themselves shine through, as well as their passion for the dance form. Dancing, and the process of training, becomes the direction the film takes, showing not only the training and backstage preparation, but also the live performances during the competition itself.  Rather than picking a favorite and hoping they win, the viewer is compelled to cheer them all on, though for different reasons for each performer.

Ultimately, you share the joy of the competitors.

The funding of ballet, (and ballet theaters), has been decreasing in recent years, so the amount of work for dancers is also decreasing. Despite this, in a competition with only 30 winners has over 300 entrants. Director Bess Kargman chose wisely with the dancers the film follows, as they not only can explain their attraction to ballet dancing, but do so with a grace equal to their performing. The drive to excel comes from within these dancers, not from the will of their parents, and this is quite palatable from early in the film. This drive, this pursuit of excellence comes at a price, one willingly paid by most of dancers in order to ultimately become a professional.

Recommended for mature audiences and lovers of ballet.