Ballet is serious business. That’s the gist of a new film called “First Position,” which follows the adventures of several youth from various parts of the globe competing in the Youth America Grand Prix – an annual dance competition that holds its finals in NYC. Winners receive scholarships for coveted dance training opportunities or the chance to work with the world’s most esteemed ballet companies from American Ballet Theatre to the Paris Opera Ballet.
Though the film feels at first like a no-drama documentary, the suspense soon builds — leaving those who watch it eager to learn the outcomes of the dancers it profiles. A girl in America whose room is filled with dance trophies and pink teddy bears. A boy from Columbia whose parents put him in ballet to keep him off the streets. A girl rescued through adoption from war-torm Sierra Leone, where she witnessed her teacher suffer a horrible fate.
“First Position” follows not only young dancers, but also their families and coaches. As dancers speak to others’ suggestions that they’re sacrificing childhood too soon, we see the impact of a life devoted to dance on those around them. Parents make dance-driven decisions, eager to support their children’s dreams. Unlike most teens, serious dancers are looking for work before they’ve finished high school — though they know careers achieved will end well before midlife.
Because it follows the everyday lives of young dancers, “First Position” paints a realistic picture of the issues they face. Whether to home school. What to eat, and how much of it. When to rest injuries, and when to work through them. How to handle doting stage parents and demanding coaches. What to tell peers who questions their choices. How to manage their own perfectionism.
The film, directed by Bess Kargman, is a rare glimpse into ballet training for those who’ve never tried it. Think devices for stretching muscles. The intricacy of building costumes. Training and travel expences. Backstage butterflies. And more. My favorite scenes feature an impromptu teacher/student toe-pointing contest and a coach cautioning an overzealous dance mom against giving her daughter direction. Best to leave such things to the professionals.
“First Position” makes clear the athleticism and artistry of the world’s most elite student dancers, but furthers my concerns about the state of recreational dance in America. Rigorous competition is the 1% of the dance world, but youth who participate in other 99% are no less important. When more studios show equal concern for the bodies, minds and emotions of everyday dancers, we’ll all be in a better position.
Coming up: The fine art of paper.