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.
First Position was released on 27th April 2013.
Watch the trailer for First Position here: