“This is a foot stretcher,” 11-year-old Aran Bell explains to the camera crew observing the contents of his bedroom in an early scene in First Position. “Hurts a lot,” he adds offhandedly as he demonstrates how it works. There’s plenty of physical and emotional pain as well as joy on screen in this highly watchable ballet documentary, which follows six young dancers preparing for the Youth America Grand Prix, and highlights just how difficult a path they’ve chosen. Competitions are one of the primary ways to get noticed by the elite companies, and the film’s subjects are vying for scholarships and jobs as well as trophies. Many are called, but few are chosen. Fortunately, first-time filmmaker Bess Kargman has selected a diverse array of competitors from different backgrounds who have significant talent in common.
Aran, who comes from a military family, has what’s clearly a promising future ahead of him in the world of dance. Droll and grounded, he’s one of the film’s best characters, along with 14-year-old Michaela Deprince, who was adopted by a Philadelphia family from war-torn Sierra Leone after her parents were killed. One of the few black faces in her ballet class, Michaela’s aware that she’s struggling against prejudices in the industry, but works determinedly even when an injury threatens her prospects. The film also follows a 16-year-old boy who’s had to leave his family in Columbia to train in New York, and a brother and sister who are starting to diverge in their attachment to dance. The only dud’s the self-proclaimed princess, a pretty, pink-wearing blonde (her nickname at school is “Barbie”) who seems to have been included to represent a more expected angle on ballet rather than because of her story.
First Position is very much in the mold of Spellbound. It doesn’t have the kick or ties to larger themes of Jeffrey Blitz’s doc, but it does have naturally cinematic subject matter. Shot by Nick Higgins, the film makes the most of not just the performances but also the backstage wrangling and waiting. (Some of its loveliest images are of dancers prepping in the darkness in the wings.) Whether baring bleeding feet, weeping over a missed step, or leaving behind everything that’s familiar to pursue a career, the subjects aren’t afraid of sacrifice, which makes the stakes of the final competition heart-poundingly high, even for those who don’t give a damn about tights and tutus.