Like horse racing, car racing and mime, ballet is not a spectacle that I find interesting. It’s a testament, therefore, to the quality of ballet documentary First Position that someone like myself who has little interest in the art depicted found the film riveting from start to finish.
The film focuses on a group of aspiring young dancers as they compete in one of the world’s most prestigious ballet competitions, the Youth America Grand Prix. The dancers include: 17 year old self-confessed Barbie doll blonde Rebecca, 16 year old Columbian Joan, 11 year old Aran, 11 year old Israeli Gaya, 12 year old Mico and 15 year old Michaela who, in an extremely moving story, escaped from war torn Sierra Leone as a child.
The film follows their gruelling training regime, battles with painful, debilitating even career-threatening injuries, their competition fears and their attempts to live a normal home life. As the competition unfolds and the judges scrutinize the young hopefuls for poise, technical execution and artistic expression, the film builds palpable tension.
It’s a narrative familiar from sports and competition documentaries like Hoop Dreams and Spellbound but it doesn’t seem tired or derivative here. This is partly because this type of triumph over adversity story seems to have an eternal fascination but also because the youngsters featured are lively and likeable personalities. Remarkably, despite their unusual, high-pressure existence, which includes sacrificing normal teenage social life, they all seem like nice kids.
The youngsters are actually much more normal than the adults some of whom fit classic mentor and stage mother stereotypes including the harsh Russian taskmaster dance teacher and an obsessive mother who’s reminiscent of skate boarder Tim Okazaki’s mum in Chris Lilley’s Angry Boys.
If there’s any criticism of this film it is that amid the myriad pressures the young dancers face, issues such as anorexia among female dancers and homophobia experienced by male dancers are not explored in sufficient depth.
In the end, though, this is a fascinating and at times emotional film that leaves you with absolute respect and admiration for these dancers and the dedication and hard work they endure to flourish in the phenomenally competitive world of professional ballet.
Nick’s rating: Four stars.
Director(s): Bess Kargman.
Release date: 11th April 2013
Running time: 95 mins.
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