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First Position follows six talented young dancers (ages 9-19) from five continents as they prepare for a worldwide ballet competition that could transform their lives overnight.Written by
First Position takes a front row in my line up of competition documentaries. It's exceptional because it doesn't overdo its reverence for ballet, nor does it play on a natural sympathy for young competitors from 9 through 19 years old. It would be easy to fawn over youngsters who have only two and a half minutes to persuade judges that they are the best among hundreds of ambitious artists.
It keeps the tension of the race to the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix while it invests just the right amount of time with six selected dancers, some of whom fortuitously go to the finals and win, if not the gold , then full scholarships to dance academies, not a bad substitute at all.
The camera follows, as is tradition, the endless practices with the demanding coaches, but this time both principals and teachers seem to enjoy the process as much as the awards. There's respectful, low key camaraderie among all the competitors, coaches, and parents that is unusual for these contests and documentaries about them.
The range of contestants is the believable, not hyped part I liked so much. While cheerful ten year old Jules Fogarty clearly isn't into dance or the competition, sixteen-year old Joan Sebastian Zamora will earn a top spot at the Grand Prix finals in New York because he cares just enough. Such is the way ambition should work out in the best of all possible worlds.
Best of all the dancers, for me, is 11 year old Aran Bell, whose ambition is matched by his awesome talent with a litheness only a dancer years older could have. Michaela, originally from Sierra Leone, is the most surprising talent, given the horrors she has seen and the physical challenges she must overcome.
Director Bess Kargman, following six contestants for over a year, does simple magic with director of photography Nick Higgins, sometimes forsaking the competition footage for the more intimately personal, with arguably limited results when the winners are announced as we want to agree with the decisions. More time on stage might have enlisted our cooperation.
A case could be made for the superiority of the ballroom dance Mad Hot Ballroom, poetry team Louder Than a Bomb, horse racing's First Saturday in May, or spelling bee Spellbound because they concentrate on the intensity of the actual competition and open up criticism of the contest itself. No such negativity appears here, a weakness for those who would like the reality of disappointment and hurt to extend beyond Michaela's sore foot.
But for me, it's nice to be relaxed as we hope these young competitors still are.
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