‘First Position’: Ballet Competition Documentary Truly Inspiring

By Diana Barth Created: July 16, 2012 Last Updated: July 18, 2012
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Director Bess Kargman arrives at the premiere of Sundance Selects' 'First Position' at the Aero Theater on April 22, 2012 in Santa Monica, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Director Bess Kargman arrives at the premiere of Sundance Selects' 'First Position' at the Aero Theater on April 22, 2012 in Santa Monica, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

NEW YORK—Filmmaker Bess Kargman, a former dancer, has delved into the workings of Youth America Grand Prix, the largest competition in the world that awards full scholarships to top ballet schools. Every year, thousands of eager young dancers hoping for their big break get judged. In the final round, only a few hundred are left to compete for elite scholarships, awards, or placement with professional ballet companies. 

In this documentary film, Kargman follows six hopefuls, in their home lives, their training routines, and the heartache that accompanies these efforts. Some of these hopefuls are extraordinary talents. There is 11-year-old Aran, whose teacher compares him to his own son, who was able to enter a fine ballet company. Aran is small, but he’s like a miniature premier danseur, his technique is so advanced and superior, and he shines in performance as well. 

Aran made it to the finals of the competition, but when it came to the prize awarding in his age category, he was passed by for all three of the major awards: the bronze, silver, and gold. He looked incredibly downcast, for he felt that he’d surely win one of those. 

However, moments later it was announced by the judges that he’d gotten the award for the best overall performance in any age category, and the onlookers cheered. It was a high moment for all concerned. He is in Italy now, perfecting his technique. 

There is Michaela, 14. Originally from South Africa, she had a remarkably rough history. Her parents were killed by the rebels, and she was raised in an orphanage. Eventually she was adopted by a white American couple and brought to their home in Philadelphia. She had wanted from a young age to become a ballerina. Yet, with all those incredible strikes against her, and being black as well, how could she possibly make it?

Astonishingly, Michaela made it to the finals. But then her Achilles tendon began to plague her and she thought she wouldn’t be able to perform. We see her soaking her foot in a bucket full of ice. Will she make it or not? 

There was Joan Sebastian, age 16, from Colombia. A remarkably handsome young man, he also displayed an incredible gift for the dance. The filmmakers follow him at one point to his home in Colombia, where he is greeted warmly by his family. However, his father warns him that there is nothing for him, work-wise, in his own country. He must then make it with dancing. What a heavy responsibility. 

Some make it and some don’t. This film is particularly moving, because not only do you see the young dancers working, you see the reactions of their hopeful teachers, their parents, their siblings, their friends. It grabs at one’s heart. 

First Position” is compelling, not only because it shows the trials and tribulations of young dancers, but because it can be extrapolated to encompass the struggles of people in many areas of work and achievement. It is truly inspiring. 

Francesca Beale Theater 
144 West 65th Street 
94 minutes, This Film is Not Rated
Closes July 19 
Information: 212-875-5600 

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