"We're fools whether we dance or not, so we might as well dance." - Japanese proverb
Not since Matthew Diamond's splendid documentary on Paul Taylor, Dancemaker (1998), has a film honored the essence of Terpsichore, the muse of dance, so well as does First Position.
Bess Kargman's new film focuses on seven competitors, aged 10 to 17, who are putting their personal lives on hold to win top prizes at the Youth American Grand Prix, the "largest competition that awards full scholarships to top ballet schools."
Much as in any reality competition on TV, we first meet the wannabe dancers and eventually their families. Then we watch the talented juveniles rehearse, overcoming pain and doubt as they twist their torsos into unimaginable configurations and leap dizzying heights.
Where the film succeeds is in its wise choice of leads to focus on. Michaela DePrince, 14, for example, was three when both of her parents were murdered in Sierra Leone. Left to die by members of her village because she had white freckling on her torso (considered a sign of the devil), DePrince was placed by an uncle in an orphanage where she apparently saw one of her teachers have both legs and arms cut off by rebels. Surviving events such as that, she was finally adopted by a New Jersey family. Stateside, DePrince discovered dance and has given her all to ballet ever since. Now she needs a scholarship to be able to continue her studies -- because, as we learn, tutus and dance shoes do not come cheap.
Then there's the brilliantly talented Joan Sebastien Zamora, 16. He is giving his all to get into a major dance company so one day he'll be able to support his family back in Colombia, where as his father notes there are no opportunities, no future. We see this young man rehearsing in New York, hoofing it up on a subway platform, and then flying back to his native country to see where and how his dreams of taking to the air across a stage first began.
As for Aran Bell, 10, he has the determination to succeed of a Wall Street broker; the elegant Miko Fogarty, 12, and her kid brother Jules, 10, have a Tiger Mom to spur them on; Gaya Bommer, 11, an Israeli Isadora, totes a crush on Aran; while the privileged Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, relishes being called "Princess" and dressing in pink.
Lamentably, this octet's possibly quixotic dreams of success are harder to achieve nowadays because the current economic environment has many ballet companies shedding dancers. The result: far fewer openings for aspiring youth and much more competition, cause enough for you to be on the edge of your seat as First Position pirouettes to its conclusion.
But don't leave your seat if this masterfully thoughtful documentary, which incisively records the trials and tribulations of getting en pointe as a career move, whets your appetite. Please note it is only one of fourteen programs that the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Dance Film Associations are offering as part of Dance on Camera, a small festival that will celebrate 40 years of dance on film from January 27 until January 31. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Gay Identity in Literature" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton).