First Position is a skillfully made, crowd-pleasing doc just savvy enough to work over judges without being completely obvious. The six young ballet dancers carefully tracked by director Bess Kargman’s camera have been cast with a warm, cozy United Colors of Benetton appeal in mind, but their wholesome, multi-ethnic charms don’t detract from the high drama of their challenges.
All these talented kids are striving for the same goal, a top prize, an all-important scholarship awarded at the prestigious 2010 Youth America Grand Prix. The results of this contest will be life-altering for many of the performers, and the focused crew of dancers — and their often overdriven parents — prepare accordingly.
These lithe, graceful little overachievers are willing to push their tiny bodies beyond reasonable limits, often to painful places only professional athletes and soldiers dare to go, all in pursuit of an elusive artistic dream.
All of these competition-driven docs still seem to be chasing after the iconic, ironic magic created by the spelling bee doc Spellbound, and First Position comes closer than most. It’s formulaic, and some outcomes feel destined, but emotion behind it is well-earned where it could’ve been cloying.
All the kids are worth rooting for, including Joan, a handsome Columbian boy whose family back home is supportive though somewhat dubious. As his father reminds him, a ballet career can be as rough and brief as a footballer’s: washed-up by 35.
Everyone knows the risks, but to some it really is a matter of life and death, especially for Michaela, an orphan who survived combat-ravaged Sierra Leone. She and her doting adopted parents were told that black girls were too “muscular” for the delicate art, or that the vitiligo spots on her neck would be distracting. She refused to listen, and through her grace on stage, and through the dedication of the mom who tirelessly dyes portions of Michaela’s costume to match the cocoa skin tone that tutus aren’t made for, we can see that real love lacks parameters or explanation.