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"Sometimes it's painful."
michael-k-coy2 May 2012
If you are between the ages of 9 and 19, and you are a dedicated (and hugely talented) ballet dancer, then the Youth America Grand Prix is a dance competition you'll know all about. And dream about. It doesn't matter where you're from (some of the "stars" of this documentary come from Africa and Latin America): given colossal natural ability, extremely hard work and the right guidance, you, too, can try for the glittering prize. Bess Kargman's excellent film follows seven kids as they prepare for, and participate in, this intense contest.

What a joy to get to review something that isn't brain-dead! Ballet is very difficult to do, very beautiful to watch, and requires intelligence and artistic flair (rather like a good documentary, really), and Bess Kargman has made a ballet film which is not only picking up awards faster than Halle Berry gathers motoring citations, but "First Position" has achieved the nigh-impossible for a work of non-fiction, and is going on general theatrical release. It will hit the screens on Friday, May 4.

The premise is a simple and compelling one. Youngsters from all over the world strive to qualify for the Grand Prix finals, held in New York City. When the very best gather for the dance-off, the pressure is just about unbearable. Each contestant will have five minutes on stage. If you're sick, or overcome by nerves, or if you stumble during your routine … too bad. All those years you worked for this, all those things you sacrificed in order to get here, are riding on the next three hundred seconds. Five thousand dancers enter each year, with this number being whittled down to a couple of hundred for the New York finals. From this small group, the winners will emerge. Kargman knows how to build suspense – but the who-won-it is only one element in this excellent film. We get to see the physical pain these kids go through (check out the "foot-stretcher" used by little Aran, which looks like a medieval torture implement), we hear from their parents and dance teachers … but, most of all, there is the beautiful ballet itself.

Like any documentary worth its salt, "First Position" asks as many questions as it answers. Thought-provoking contributions abound, like that from the teacher who states openly, "Kids who are pursuing ballet as a career give up their childhood." Can such a sacrifice be justified? Who gets to make the choice? Which is worse – to push small children through the grueling practice schedules, or not to push them – thereby passing up the chance for success? Is it fair to expose youngsters to the appalling pressure of the final round? This is a film which stays with the viewer long after the final credits have rolled.

One of the things you need to be good at, when you shoot a documentary, is judging what not to do or say. In this, Kargman has triumphed. She is never obtrusive, and she lets the images (and the kids) tell the story. Critic Dave Robson, reviewing the film for the Toronto International Film Festival (where, incidentally, it won considerable acclaim) puts it like this: "Though she casts a wide net, Kargman is careful to include only the most essential commentary. She frequently complements her cast's words with beautiful shots of dancing and juxtaposes them with more candid and vulnerable moments. It is perhaps trite to say that a film about an aesthetic discipline looks beautiful, but "First Position" does. It certainly helps that dancers are well lit, but more to the point, Kargman keeps her cinematography simple. To be too clever would distract from the dancing." In case anyone reading this is under the misapprehension that it's just a bunch of well-heeled preppy youngsters indulging in a glorified hobby, it is worth mentioning Michaela Deprince. This young finalist hails from Sierra Leone, where she witnessed her parents getting murdered. "It's a miracle I'm even here," she says – and she bears the scars to prove it. Indeed, overall, this is a singularly resilient bunch of kids. After all they have been through, it is surprising – not to mention heart-warming – to see how balanced, articulate and likable they all are. Take, for example, the tiny 12-year-old Miko Fogarty, who frequently has to field comments from others, to the effect that she has missed out on her childhood. She doesn't happen to agree.

This is Bess Kargman's breakthrough movie, and much credit she deserves. She directed the project and also took a major hand in the editing. Her director of photography, Nick Higgins, has done a lot of documentary work in his career – but surely nothing as visually captivating as this.

By the way, for those of you who, like me, have a penchant for movie titles which contain more than one level of meaning, "First Position" refers of course to winning the Grand Prix, and therefore being guaranteed a prestigious professional contract … but it is also a ballet term, denoting the preliminary posture – standing with heels together, toes splayed outwards. The things you learn on IMDb, huh?
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10/10
This is a great film. Why does it have such a low rating?
Red-1252 July 2012
First Position (2011), directed by Bess Kargman, is an excellent film about young ballet dancers. For reasons I can't understand, as I write this review, the movie carries an IMDb rating of a dismal 6.2. How can that be? Did the viewers who rated it "1" see the same film I saw?

The movie follows seven young ballet dancers as they prepare for, and then compete in, the prestigious Grand Prix competition. As pointed out in the movie, many physical activities in which people participate involve natural movements for which the human body is well suited.

Catching a baseball, swimming, or climbing a rope are not easy, but our species has the natural physical capabilities to do these things. Ballet dancing, especially en pointe ballet dancing, is not a natural activity for us. We simply are not constructed to (literally) walk on the tips of our toes. The feet have to be trained and remodeled to allow this activity to take place. And, of course, not only do ballet dancers dance on their toes, but when they are doing this they are supposed to make their movements elegant, graceful, and apparently effortless.

Although male ballet dancers don't dance en pointe, their movements are also extraordinarily difficult. One young male dancer shows us his "foot stretcher," and tells us, "It hurts a lot."

So, serious ballet dancing requires physical traits that are extraordinary, dedication so that ballet becomes central to your life, and the capability to absorb physical pain that would be "cruel and unusual punishment" if it weren't voluntary.

Director Kargman has put together a documentary that takes us inside the lives of these young dancers. We meet their coaches, their families, and their judges. Also, of course, we go to the Grand Prix with the dancers, and we learn whether they succeed or fail.

I thought the movie was honest, creative, and balanced. These young people are not "regular kids who happen to take ballet." They are dedicated, passionate, and fanatically determined to succeed. First Position brings us into the world of ballet training, and allows us to make our own decisions about the wisdom of encouraging your child to dance and compete at this level. It's a great film. Why does it have such a low rating?
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Ballet at its Best
jdesando1 June 2012
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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10/10
Good work
foleymichael6023 May 2012
This documentary takes a little time to pull you in but it succeeds nicely. A little patience is required but it is worth it !

I like most people expected to be bored senseless with this but instead I now appreciate classical dance much more.

This is because director Bess Kargman pays attention to the sufferings hard work and devotion and lets not forget beauty of what these young people go through and what they do.

She lets us see the toll ballet takes on these kids emotions and feet. Yes I said feet. Bruised bloody feet. And all the emotional strain as well.

Watch for the African girl who dances with a bad ankle and it is just normal for every one around her and nobody tries to dissuade her!

I could empathize and feel the dramatic as the competition nears and judgement is made in the various categories.

I gave this documentary 8 stars. But it might as well be 10 because it did hold my attention about a subject I had no interest in whatsoever. I didn't want to see it. For shame. I am glad I spent the money on this film.

I was going to see an other film for the second time because the Embassy in Waltham has $6.00 Tuesdays.

When there's a new film showing? What a waste!
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10/10
Dreaming All The Way to The Top
aharmas4 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
In "Purple of Rose of Cairo", the heroine frequently visits the theatre to escape reality and live vicariously through the lives of the fantastic characters in the silver screen. In this modern-day inspirational tale, one can experience the road to dreams coming true for some of the people in the spotlight in this crowd pleaser. Ballet might not be everyone's favorite entertainment, but it sure ignites the passion of the children in the competitions, and it truly shines in the hands of very talented filmmakers.

There is a lot to enjoy in this documentary that follows six children as they try to pursue their dreams to become professional ballet dancers. It's a rough road, where much will be sacrificed, and even the enduring support of parents and coaches might not feel that supportive. One can see how parents and coaches are trying to relive their own dreams, and a few times we wonder if what they are trying to sell us is really the real thing. Then we see their students dance, and magic explodes in the screen.

There is plenty of underdog to cheer here. Every one of the chosen subjects is a very special individual, with origins as different as war-ravaged countries to obsessive parents... and there is not a dull moment in the 90 minutes that made it to the screen. There is certainly plenty of beauty here as human beings practice routines to shine within five very competitive minutes they are given in world famous competitions. It is easy to say one can hardly be disappointed as each performer gives their best.

I can't recommend this enough: It's a heartwarming and quite charming work of art.
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9/10
Mesmerizing and Fascinating Documentary
larrys310 November 2012
Produced and directed by Bess Kargman, this is a fascinating and riveting documentary.

Each year, the world's largest ballet competition is held, for young dancers ages 9-19, called the Youth America Grand Prix. In 15 cities around the world five thousand young dancers compete in the semi-finals for 300 slots in the finals in New York City.

They will get five minutes on stage, judged by directors and top personnel from some of the world's most prodigious ballet companies, to try and win scholarships or job contracts for their future careers.

As many of these documentaries are presented, seven hopefuls, with very diverse backgrounds, are followed in their preparations, training and personal lives. I found all of the competitors to be extremely interesting and it was hard to pick a favorite.

You couldn't ask more from a documentary with vivid portrayals of the young dancers and their families, as well as the suspense of the competition itself.
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Excellent ballet competition documentary, kids 9 to 19.
TxMike13 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
As the credits roll there is a sentence thanking everyone for having faith in a "first time filmmaker." And she did a fine job indeed. Over the past few years I have seen several documentaries featuring school-age kids, one preparing for a high school jazz competition, another for scholarships to cooking schools, plus a few others. What always strikes me is how dedicated these kids are, the antithesis of lost kids roaming the streets, looking to get into mischief.

The subject of is film is the 2010 world-wide competition to identify future ballet stars. A few thousand kids compete at semi-final sites around the world, and about the 200 best converge on New York for the finals, where some will get scholarships and some will get hired into a ballet company.

Interestingly the IMDb credits don't mention perhaps the best dancer featured, a boy of 11 named Aran. His parents are US military and when he competed they were stationed in Italy.

For me the most inspiring story was of Michaela Deprince, who as a young girl in war-torn Sierra Leone witnessed her parents killed during their civil war in the 1990s. She and another girl were adopted by an American couple and grew up with a normal life, and now she is an accomplished and successful ballet dancer.

The other that I found greatly interesting is Joan (pronounced 'JOE-nn') Sebastian Zamora, a 16-yr-old boy from Columbia. He seemed mature way beyond his age and is dedicated to his dancing. He was a superb dancer at 16, and was hired by England's Royal Ballet.

Overall a fine documentary with just the right emphasis on the semis and the finals, and just the right parceling of time among the featured contestants. Even if a person is not a particular fan of ballet (like me) it is enjoyable for the story being told. We hear too much news of kids getting into trouble, we don't hear enough of the good kids who are dedicated and work hard for what they want.
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8/10
Young talents bring hope to our future
Kicino3 October 2013
A nicely crafted documentary about six youngsters working extremely hard for the highly competitive Young American Grand Prix (YAGP) for ballet dancers aged 9-19. These focused kids are among 300 finalists chosen from 1,500 contestants from all over the world. Winners of the grand prix will receive prizes, elite dance company contracts or scholarships at top ballet schools. The film traces their hardworking daily training routine, setbacks and their hopes. We also catch a glimpse of their family life while these aspiring young men and women talk about their dreams and passion.

It is an excellent production which captures the drive and aspirations of these young people from various background – and the care of their parents, whether they are mixed couple, foster parents, in the military or ordinary Americans. What we see is not only the kid's passion, but also how their parents bend backwards and revolve their lives around their children's talents and interest.

It goes so far that a company has to move and school has to give way to home schooling so that the kids can have more time to dance. So a two- hour each way commune is nothing. Equally admirable and impressive is the trust, confidence and pride of the parents, not to mention their invaluable support. Some of these parents are dancers or musicians but whatever their experience is, they have enormous trust/belief in their kids and wholeheartedly support their children.

However, there is a fine line between them and the helicopter or monster parents who impose on their kids in the name of "for the sake of their own good." I have heard that some kids in Hong Kong are forced to learn the piano since they were young and incidents are: once the kids pass all the grade exams they never touch the piano again.

But what we see in the movie is that all the six characters have developed a genuine love and interest for ballet from within. Despite their young age and development stage, in order to strive for excellence in ballet, they are willing to give up a big part of their personal life including separating from the family, going out with friends, eating anything they want, suffer and endure various injuries etc. Their parents are just behind them.

The coaches are interesting characters too – or the director just chose the more lively coaches and to film. We can see that these coaches are also human – they can be strict and mean but they are well-liked and respected - whether they are French or Colombian or Russian or American.

The editing and directing is excellent with witty and funny dialogues or facial expressions (and they are all real!) intersperse between intense and competitive scenes. It slowly set the stage for the nerve breaking YAGP and by then we are almost part of the family of the youngsters and really hope their efforts pay off.

Like their parents and coaches, I also held my breath as the kids performed in their 5 minute appearance on stage for the Grand Prix. Competition is tough, but we can see the kid's determination, maturity and intense focus. The endurance and passion is so strong that it would overshadow the physical pain! Success does not come from luck. We also see support, respect and recognition of their potentials pay a very important role in shaping these youngsters' lives.

We witness that when you are doing something you love, even the pain will be gone and you will go on. This resilience combined with their talent speak loud and clear why they are ahead of other dancers despite their huge prices to pay.

An excellent documentary for parents, students, teachers, coaches and anyone interested in ballet/music/sports and nurturing our next generation. Highly recommended.
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8/10
I felt very informed and inspired after watching First Position!
TinyDanseur2728 June 2013
First Position was a brilliant documentary in my opinion! It gives the audience an intimate look at the lives of seven dancers ages 9-17 who are preparing for the Youth America Grand Prix international ballet competition. They each are hoping to receive a scholarship to study at a world-renown ballet institution, or a job offer so that they can achieve their dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer. The documentary addresses the lifestyles of these children, their performances at the Grand Prix semi-finals, and eventually the finals in New York City.

I felt like this gave a really interesting and accurate depiction of the lives of these young dancers. The kids they picked to interview were very diverse and likable. I found myself routing for all of them. Also important, the documentary addressed how this career path has affected the lives of the parents of the children. The parents vary from loving and supportive to completely overbearing. I enjoyed the variety of approaches to the same goal.

I really would recommend this documentary. The subject is really interesting. The way it is filmed and edited is ideal (not too fast, not too slow) and the dancing is absolutely breath-taking. I felt very informed and very inspired after watching First Position.
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8/10
lovely documentary
blanche-231 July 2012
Producer/Director Beth Kargman has put together a wonderful documentary that follows six young ballet dancers to the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most important of all ballet competitions worldwide.

The prizes at the competition include awards of recognition, scholarships, and work with major dance companies. The dancers are in several age ranges and ethnicities and include 11-year-old Aaron Bell, Joan Sebastian Zamora, a dancer from Colombia, Michaela Deprince,a black dancer, Jules and Miko Fogarty, of mixed ethnicity, pretty Israeli Gaya Bommer, and all-American girl Rebecca Houseknecht.

Michaela and her sister were adopted from Sierra Leone, where there was nothing but death and poverty. Michaela has been told that blacks make unsuitable ballet dancers -- bad feet, too muscular, wrong build etc. For the competition, her teacher has her dance against type, doing a feminine, delicate dance.

Zamora lives in New York, far away from his family, but his father tells him there is nothing for him in Colombia and he has to go after his dream. Rebecca is a cheerleader and normal kid whose passion is dance, and Aaron doesn't tell other kids he's a dancer. All of them have great talent, as we can see from their dance routines at the Grand Prix. Zamora has stardom written all over him. Jules has decided he really doesn't like ballet, which hurts his mother, but she accepts it.

A very inspiring documentary about youngsters from different backgrounds and social status with the dream of dancing in the ballet, and the sacrifices they have made to achieve their goal. The dancing is heavenly; I only wish there had been more of it.

Good luck to all these kids. I'm sure we'll be hearing about most of them as time goes on.
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8/10
Ballet High
atlasmb23 September 2013
Remember the excellent movie "The Competition" starring Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving, about young pianists who compete for glory and careers? First Position likewise gives a backstage view of a prestigious competition, complete with background about their families and their lifestyles. Except First Position is a documentary, not fiction.

What a joy to follow these talented kids as they dedicate their lives to their art and their dreams. I found all of them to be likable. Some negative comments have been made about some of the parents, but they all were willing to provide whatever their children needed to pursue their dreams. One child did, eventually, drop out of dance, but it seemed his parents supported his decision.

Have you ever felt proud of someone even though you had no connection with them? Well I felt that way numerous times during this film. I am not a relative nor a teacher nor a parent. But I found myself swelling with pride for those special children who have dared to pursue a dream with such singlemindedness, yet seem to be happy and humorous. Or the child who continues to dance despite taunting from other children.

This documentary is recommended for anyone who loves dance or enjoys stories about the human will to achieve.
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9/10
I don't like ballet....yet I liked this film!
MartinHafer10 May 2013
"First Position" is an incredibly interesting documentary. I say this because I hate ballet...yet I found myself seriously drawn into the lives of these kids. It must be good if it could win me over, that's for sure.

This film is about a group of kids who are trying to make it in ballet field. They range in age from 8 to 17 and are from various countries--including the US, Columbia and Israel. And, through the course of the film, you see them in various international competitions--trying to win awards, scholarships and, perhaps, jobs.

While none of this on the surface sounds that interesting, the film has several things going for it. First, many of the kids are incredibly likable and are amazing to watch. The most amazing of these is the insanely talented 11 year-old boy who is just gorgeous to watch as he dances (it looked so easy and his joy as he danced was infectious). Second, a few of the stories pulled me in and got me excited--such as the girl originally from Sierra Leone and the SUPER-annoying mother who pushed her boy to dance even though he clearly was not interested. Third, the film lacks narration and just lets the folks talk--and most of the best documentaries do this. Fourth, and this one surprised me, I found myself REALLY, REALLY caring about the kids. As the final competition progressed, I was on the edge of my seat. Well worth seeing.
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10/10
Must watch for ALL ballet dancers!
candydancer1825 June 2012
This is a great movie! This movie isn't for all people, mind you. It's only for ballet dancers, people who want to become professional dancers, parents of ballet dancers, ballet teachers, and people interested in the concept of ballet.

This shows all the hardships of ballet, particularly on how the YAGP goes down.

This is tremendous movie and I really suggest going and seeing it! I have been waiting for a year for this movie to come out in theatres! In the USA, it comes out MAY/JUNE/JULY and in Canada, it comes out in JULY.
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7/10
very enjoyable, engaging and inspiring documentary
gregking46 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Tutus, tears and triumphs? First Position is a very enjoyable and inspiring documentary about the annual Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most prestigious dance competitions in the world. Thousands of hopefuls try out for prizes including contracts with leading ballet companies and scholarships to some of the top ballet schools in the world. It is a very competitive environment, as the judges are looking for the right combination of body, training, personality, passion, technique and future potential. Former ballerina and first time filmmaker Bess Kargman follows six young hopefuls through the competition, and we gain some insight into their dedication, the long hours spent training, rehearsing and perfecting their techniques, as well as their aspirations and sacrifices. There is also inevitably some disappointments along the way. First Position is a warm and upbeat examination of talented kids striving for their big break and coping with enormous pressure of competition. Eleven-year-old Aran comes from a military family based in Italy and is determined to succeed. Michaela was born in Sierra Leone during the bloody civil war, and was adopted by a white American family who support her dreams. Joan Sebastian pursues dance as a way of escaping the poverty and lack of opportunities back home in his native Columbia. Sakoto is the mother of both Jules and Miko, and is obsessed with having her children succeed. A telling moment comes when Jules admits that he doesn't particularly like ballet but is only doing it to please his mother. Kargman balances the individual journeys beautifully, and suffuses the film with an element of suspense as it leads up to the make or break Grand Final in New York. This is an emotionally engaging documentary that explores a number of touching human stories with compassion and unrestrained joy. Fans of classical dance will certainly enjoy First Position. But it has enough to appeal to the casual viewer as well.
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3/10
unfortunately stereotypical and predictably happy
se-milton22 November 2013
Warning: Spoilers
First Position was filmed in America in 2011, and follows young ballerinas competing for awards, job contracts and scholarships in the Youth America Grand Prix (an annual competition that awards the best dancers the opportunity to train professionally and pursue a career within the dance industry).

Most striking about this documentary is the effort put in by the families, trainers and dancers. Everyone knows that ballet training is difficult and a momentous life commitment, but the film captures all the emotional involvement and strain it puts on family life and the dancers' young bodies, the pressure to make the financial commitment worth it and the effect on their self-worth and pride.

Michaela DePrince's story is quite beautiful. Adopted from Sierra Leone after her father was murdered in the civil war, and her mother died of starvation, she arrived in New Jersey, America where she was encouraged to do whatever she wanted – and that was to dance. She tells us her inspiration came from a photo of a ballerina that she found in Sierra Leone and kept, and talks about the prejudice about her race being too muscular and not graceful enough to dance professionally, juxtaposed with the commitment of her parents and their joy stemming from her passion and happiness when she dances. Her final performance is perfectly gracious, despite injury, which makes her fight all the more inspiring.

Bess Kargman's film is unfortunately stereotypical and ends predictably happily. A longer focus on Jules, one young dancer quitting due to his heart not being in it as much as his sister Miko, would have given the film a little more depth. The disappointment of his mother is captured, but did this manifest into respect for her son's decision? Was his honesty and bravery eventually acknowledged? The heartache is clear but the emotional connection the audience spends an hour forging with the dancers isn't given opportunity to develop. The technicalities and pressure are the focus, and the positivity evoked at the ending, however lovely, takes away from the reality that most of these young people won't go on to work. The shots of their scabbed, broken, bruised feet are harrowing but merely glimpse at the harsh truth of the daunting career that they have fallen hopelessly in love with. First Position simply lacks grit.
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9/10
Fantastic
bikelvrgirl28 April 2017
Probably the best documentary I have ever seen. The acting, music and interviews are all superb. This movie has almost more of an entertainment feel than a typical documentary that has a more educational feel. I will almost certainly watch this again in the future. It makes me want to be a dancer too!
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5/10
Good not great
kz917-115 May 2017
Documentary that follows the journey of several students across the world to compete at the Grand Prix and win scholarships prestigious schools and dance ballet at the highest level. Several parents seem to have more drive than the students. To them ballet is life, air and water. They live it, breathe it and if things don't go their way they just might be crushed. Some will crash others will triumph, either way there will be tears.
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