By Laurie Coker

Rating: A

My parents couldn’t afford to put me in dance lessons, because I have three siblings and my mother provided the income for most of our family expenses. I would have loved to dance and  play piano, but I could not take classes, even though I was told I had the hands, feet and body to do these things. Regardless, I do love watching gifted dancers and hearing a talented pianist play, so when given the option to see Battleship (which I do not regret missing) or to see the documentary First Position, I chose the latter and am delighted that I did. Director Bess Kargman takes her audience behind the scenes as students prepare for a world-class ballet competition and shows us the dreams, tears, fears and joy that her subjects find in dance.

First Position follows six young dancers and their families as they prepare for The Youth America Grand Prix – the one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world. We meet Aran Bell a naturally gifted 11 year old boy, Michaela Deprince, a war orphan from Sierra Leon, Jules Jarvis Fogarty and her younger brother Miko, whose mother epitomizes “stage mom,” beautiful Rebecca Houseknecht, and Joan Sebastian Zamora, a Colombian teen who moves alone to NYC to achieve his dreams and help his family. We discover that when lifelong dreams are at stake – scholarships and contracts – practice and discipline are vital, and nothing short of perfection is expected. Families sacrifice money, travel to foreign countries and unfamiliar places to get the best coaches and training, and even send their children away alone to allow them the best opportunities for success.

Sitting in the comfy seats at Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema, I watched in awe as these children (except for Miko, who decides he doesn’t really want to dance) sacrifice everything – time with friends, diversions beyond ballet, fast food and some would say, their youth – to dance – and to win a coveted prize or scholarship that will allow them into a prestigious school and/or hopefully to dance professionally. They show grace on stage and in their lives in spite of injuries, stiff competition, pushy parents and other obstacles.

Kragman’s take pleases on several levels. She shows us inside the lives of her subjects and does so in a way that connects us to them. We, or at least I, feel what they feel and like parents we sit in awe and anticipation as the kids practice and perform. Kragman’s tale is not just about the dancers, but about their lives and their parents. Her parents (an integral part of the documentary) are completely dedicated and caring parents (both mothers and fathers), even Jules’s mother, whose entire life centers obsessively on ballet and the success of her kids (we see her in tears when Miko decides to quit, but supports his choice). Even more impressive is Kragman’s ability to create intensity in her film – there are some teeth grinding moments of anticipation, grimaces as young dancers endure injury and pain and  breath-holding as announcers deliver results.

For me the most interesting dancers are Micheala and Aran and oh, his friend Gaya Brommer Yemini, who offers a subplot and who has a very unique and delightfully entertaining dance style. Jules’ mother, while definitely doting to a nearly negative degree, is still not as bad as she could be and Michaela’s adoptive mother ices her injuries, creates costumes that match the tone of her daughter’s dark skin and attends every practice and event. Aran and Gaya have an adorable connection, and seeing how all of these amazing children interact with their peers and parents inspires.

As I said earlier, I am pleased that I chose a ballet documentary over the big (and I hear bad) blockbuster film Battleship. I am placing an A in my grade book. Dancers, lovers of dance and really anyone who admires the art will enjoy First Position. The only people who might not are those who think Battleship deserves an Oscar.



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