Editors' pick

First Position

Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: NR
Genre: Documentary
A debut documentary about young dancers from filmmaker Bess Kargman.
Starring: Aran Bell, Michaela DePrince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht, Gaya Bommer Yemini, Miko, Jules Fogarty
Director: Bess Kargman
Running time: 1:30
Release: Opened May 11, 2012
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Editorial Review

A turning point in young lives
By Amy Hitt
Friday, May 11, 2012

Dance Moms, your bus back to Pittsburgh is waiting.

Forget that "reality" show about young dancers on the Lifetime channel. "First Position," a debut documentary from Bess Kargman, is the real thing.

Kargman's film follows seven aspiring dancers over a year as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious international competition that awards coveted scholarships and job offers with major ballet companies.

It's an intense journey, and Kargman captures it all, down to the dancers' bloodied and bruised feet.

Like the 2002 movie "Spellbound" about the National Spelling Bee, "First Position" succeeds not because of its subject (the competition itself) but because of its subjects - from 10-year-old Jules, who would really rather be napping than dancing, to 17-year-old Joan, who has left his family in Colombia and come to New York to pursue his dream of dancing with the Royal Ballet. In between, but with no less compelling stories, are 11-year-old Aran, a tiny boy whose small size belies his big talent; Rebecca, 17, who seems to have it all but still struggles; and Miko, a stringbean of a 12-year-old who whips out turns like nobody's business.

Then there's Michaela, whose back story may be the most interesting. The 14-year-old is a war orphan from Sierra Leone who was adopted by a New Jersey family when she was 4. Michaela may not have the ideal ballet physique, but she is determined to become a prima ballerina. She's the underdog, and you'll find yourself rooting for her at every pirouette, especially when she suffers a potentially major injury - every dancer's worst enemy.

It's not just Michaela's drive, however, that helps her persevere. Her family - her mom first and foremost - is there at every step, whether it's icing her injury or sewing a costume that complements her daughter's skin tone.

Kargman never lets us forget that the parents are part of the story, too. Sure, there's the stage mom who eats the higher-fat yogurt while giving her dancer kids the nonfat kind, but there also are the fathers who encourage and cheer on their ballet-dancing sons, despite the teasing and taunts.

As you watch them watching their kids onstage, you'll feel for them almost as much as for the competitors. When the final competition does arrive, the fleeting performances are almost an afterthought to what's happening backstage. It is that glimpse behind the curtains, and into the lives of these very young dancers, that draws you in and that Kargman so lovingly provides.

"You wake up and your body's really tired that you say, 'Why am I doing this?' " Joan says of his chosen path. "But . . . you just feel this magic thing that you have."

Magic indeed.

Contains nothing objectionable except some really nasty-looking feet.