Ballet News reviews | First Position
First Position is a documentary film, following the fortunes of seven children between the ages of 10-17 (during filming) as they compete for scholarships at the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) in 2010. YAGP is an annual competition for students aged 9-19 and the final is held in New York, where only around 500 of the 5000 hopefuls will compete. The European semi-finals for YAGP 2010 were held in Sicily, Italy, during November 2009. At the NYC Finals, the students compete for over $250,000 in scholarships to 30 of the world’s leading dance schools, audition for professional job contracts with the world’s top international dance companies, and perform on the stage at YAGP’s Gala.
Compare the figures with the European Prix de Lausanne, where this year 79 candidates of 19 different nationalities were selected from 226 entrants. At the end of the selection round, 20 candidates were chosen to perform in the finals and 8 of them left with a years scholarship to one of the 65 prestigious Prix de Lausanne partner schools and companies.
First Position focuses on the young dance students preparing for YAGP, which is shot in several countries besides America – including the UK and Columbia. It’s about the journey, not the destination.
Director Bess Kargman, herself inspired by YAGP, set out “to make a movie that I always wished had existed.” In the process, Kargman wanted to challenge and hopefully smash the stereotypes that abound regarding ballet – that not all stage mothers are pushy, etc – as well as highlighting the socio-economic diversity that exists within ballet. In choosing the candidates, with no control over the outcome (who might win the competition), Kargman felt that it was of paramount importance to find great characters who would hold the story (and your attention) regardless of how they performed in the competition – a basic tenet of great journalism in any medium.
The parents of the featured children are definitely not pushy; they have made sacrifices to facilitate expensive ballet training which will resonate with anyone around the world in a similar position, and so too have their children, who often give up the normal childhood of their siblings for the endless round of ballet classes, rehearsals, auditions and competitions. Some of the mothers even make the tutus and other costumes to save money – one of them has to, as flesh coloured tutus don’t work for her daughter. Necessarily, the timeframe for making a film means that you may already be aware of the outcome of the competition, but First Position seeks to show the hard work that goes into a one minute solo, that ballet dancers train just as hard as other professional sportspeople, with a smattering of day-to-day life in between.
Aran, 11, is shown being manhandled by his teacher in class, who thinks a lot of Aran despite the tough approach. Aran comes from a military family who have moved a lot as part of the job. They’ve tried to find ballet for Aran each time, and he shows incredible potential.
Michaela, 14, was born in Sierra Leone during the Civil War and bears the scars : both of her parents were shot by rebels and she has witnessed atrocities. She says that when she arrived in the US with her adoptive parents, the big change was that suddenly everyone cared about her. Her teachers describe her ballet training as “moving away from the eagle and towards the swan.” Michaela is a powerful dancer and wants to become a graceful, elegant dancer.
Rebecca, 17, who is hyper-flexible and has been dancing from a young age, is looking for a professional job and is hoping for an award at YAGP. She loves pink and was a member of the school cheer leading team in junior high school.
Jules, 10, does ballet with his sister, Miko, 12, though there is a marked difference in their aptitude for ballet and later Jules drops out of training before the finals. They live in Palo Alto, California, and Miko is home-schooled to allow more time for her ballet classes.
During the semi-finals in Italy we meet Aran’s livewire friend Gaya (age 11), and in Aran’s age group only three dancers will win awards. They both get through, which will come as no surprise as they are both inspiring dancers despite their youth, and head off in seperate directions to train for a further five months until the finals in New York.
Joan Sebastian, 16, from Columbia, and Rebecca also make it through the semis. Joan Sebastian’s idol is Carlos Acosta, and he says that his ambition is to get into The Royal Ballet. There is some drama when Miko unexpectedly falls during her solo, but she makes it through as well.
And it’s on to the finals. This film works hard to showcase the exceptional talent of the young dancers, what it took to get them to this point and how hard they work to improve, every day. It is unusual in its rigourous approach to showcasing the ballet dancers completely; their line and grace – the editing is superb and comes from a true understanding of dance by Kargman. Competitions in ballet are often controversial because of the pressure they can put on the competitors. Though nervous, all of these featured youngsters readily accept the challenge, either to be noticed or to get a job. But will they?
First Position is released in the US during May. Check your local paper for listings.
Watch the First Position trailer