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Fittingly, this ballet documentary opens foot first. The camera trains on the pointe shoes of dozens of young dancers who are nervously twirling before the curtain rises on the most important competition of their lives: the Youth America Grand Prix. Later, the shoes will come off, and boy, do these kids have some gnarly feet: cracked, bleeding, deformed, and formidable as hell. Tough stuff, they shrug it off. They may not be professionals yet, but they sure act like it.
First Position follows six international hopefuls, ages 10 to 17, as they tackle first the semifinals, held around the world, and then the New York-based finals of the Grand Prix, where the world’s leading dance schools and companies gather to watch – and grade – their technique, musicality, personality, and body shape. The stakes are shockingly high: First prizes come with scholarships and contracts to the American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, and other top-tier dance outfits. A five-minute solo can secure a future; a bad day, or an ill-timed injury flare-up, can stop a career trajectory in its tracks.
Out of the thousands competing, first-time feature director (and former dancer) Bess Kargman found a charismatic and terrifically talented group to follow, including Aran, a buoyant 11-year-old boy who skateboards through the backstage bowels of Sicily’s Teatro Massima Bellini, and Michaela, a 14-year-old Sierra Leone native who speaks passionately about the uphill battle of black classical dancers. Kargman’s camera documents tiny, telling moments that hint of much larger issues at play, as when Michaela’s adoptive mother hand-dyes her daughter’s tights, because “flesh”-colored doesn’t take into account any flesh other than lily-white. The film also glances on such ballet hot topics as eating disorders, discrimination against boys, micromanaging moms, and the extremely cutthroat nature of these competitions. But only glances: It’s a wealth of material at odds with a scant running time and shallow focus. First Position excels as a personality-driven competition film cut from the same cloth as Spellbound or Hands on a Hard Body. But when you think back on those gnarly feet – how they are an eloquent testament to the single-minded steeliness of these child artists/athletes – there’s just no revelatory equivalent to be found in the film itself.