I didn’t care for Black Swan. You couldn’t pay me to sit through an episode of “Dancing with the Stars.” When presented with an opportunity to preview first-time director Bess Kargman’s ballet competition documentary, let’s say I wasn’t overcome with anticipation. So it’s a testament to just how accomplished and appealing this picture is that, within its first five minutes, it had me hooked.
Kargman, a Brookline, Mass., native who trained at the Boston Ballet School, employs the approach popularized by such films as Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. She follows six young aspirants as they prepare for and make their way through the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious annual dance-off where the top prizes include scholarships and job contracts from the world’s preeminent ballet institutions.
From the 5000 who enter worldwide and 300 who make it to the New York finals, it’s hard to imagine the filmmaker handpicking a half-dozen young people whose stories are more engaging than the ones told here. We meet 11-year-old Aran Bell, who started lessons at 4, and marvel at how the boy playing with his BB gun in one scene transforms into a confidently soaring stage performer in the next. Michaela Deprince is 14 and determined to prove that black girls are not “too muscular” to be classical ballerinas. Racism isn’t all she’s had to survive. Born in Sierra Leone, she lost both her parents in the civil war. “One time I tried to save my teacher,” she recounts. “But I kind of, like, blacked out, and they just cut her arms and legs off and just left her there.”
Half-Japanese Miko Fogarty, 12, has a Tiger Mom, but her mother’s obsessiveness is revealed to be incidental to her own passion. She’s happy to be homeschooled so she can practice four to five hours a day. Some of the most astonishing performances are given by an Israeli 11-year-old named Gaya Bommer Yemini, Aran’s “girlfriend” on the competition circuit. She’s a pint-size shape-shifter with stage presence way beyond her years. “She becomes an adult when she dances,” says Gaya’s mother, almost in disbelief.
Perhaps the contestant whose story resonates most is 16-year-old Joan Sebastian Zamora. Born in Cali, Colombia, he couldn’t pursue a dance career there, so his parents packed him off to New York to study with a former American Ballet Theater dancer. In one of the film’s most affecting passages, Kargman’s cameras accompany Joan on a visit to his home, ravaged by poverty and crime. The director punctuates the moving sequence with an effect that speaks volumes about familial devotion and sacrifice: The image of the young man in his backyard, rehearsing his routine, morphs perfectly into the image of him performing it on the Grand Prix stage. It’s literally a vision of transcendence.
First Position is filled with fascinating glimpses into the world of competitive ballet — the endless lessons, the unrelenting physical demands, the social price these children freely pay for a shot at their dream and the financial one their families bear. Who knew, for example, that a pair of dance shoes costs $80 or more and can be demolished by a day’s worth of practice?
More importantly, the film is filled with fascinating people. Kargman strikes just the right balance between backstory and contest, so that, when the six make it to the moment of truth, the viewer is fully invested in the outcome.
Prepare to be blown away. Far from the dutiful progeny of “Dance Moms,” these are individuals of uncommon skill, self-knowledge, maturity and drive. They’re serious artists who just happen to be kids. Don’t be fooled; they’re the real deal. And so is First Position.
"First Position" starts its run at Merrill’s Roxy Cinemas in Burlington on Friday, June 22. That evening, at 7 and 9:15 p.m., the theater will host two benefit screenings for the Vermont Ballet Theater with introductions from Flynn Center executive director John Killacky and Vermont Ballet Theater artistic director Alex Nagiba. $20. flynntix.org