Culture: Film

First Position

First Position

Ballet was never my thing. I tried it a couple of times but I never looked good in a tutu and my feet were more like flippers. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the hard work and dedication it takes to become a supreme ballet dancer. Bess Kargman’s debut as a documentary director focuses on a group of very talented children as they enter a ballet competition that could change their lives. 

The Youth America Grand Prix competition is held every year. Thousands of hopeful dancers are chosen, through regional competitions held around the world, to attend the final in New York, where there could win scholarships to prestigious dance schools, as well as possible employment in a company. The level of competition is incredibly high and entrants not only have to be extraordinary dancers, but be willing to almost sacrifice their lives in the pursuit of their dreams.

The film follows six children, and their lives outside of the dance arena, as they prepare for the regional heats. We meet Aran, an 11-year-old boy whose father is in the American Navy and is moved from country to country, yet is determined to do what he can for his child’s ballet dreams; Rebecca, a regular 17-year-0ld blonde girl, for whom dancing is her life; 16-year-old Colombian boy Joan Sebastian, who has moved away from his family for dance and Miko and Jules, sister and brother, the girl a dedicated dancer, her brother not caring too much whether he dances or not. Then there’s Michaela, an adopted girl from Sierra Leone who has had to fight for her life and finally Gaya, an Israeli girl who is besotted by Aran, as well as being an amazing dancer herself.

It would have been easy for Kargman to have concentrated on children being bullied into performing, in a similar vein to the horrendous TV documentary series, ‘Dance Moms’. Instead, we are treated to a slice of each of the children’s lives, from the normal (Aran skateboarding down corridors in theatres, Rebecca with her love of all things pink extending to a fluffy steering wheel cover) to the hardship (Michaela’s life as an orphan, suffering from pigments on her skin and dealing with prejudice within the dance community) to the slightly pushy mother (Mika’s mother home-schooling her daughter so she can spend more time rehearsing and practicing). The one thing that comes across is that all participants have the unconditional support of their families, even though as Rebecca’s mother realises, there often isn’t sufficient work out there for dancers.

We also get to see the dancing and each of the children is extraordinary. Having invested so much time with each child, we feel that we are up there on that stage with them, as they dance their hearts out. You get behind them and you fear for them as they face the judges in each competition. The final part of this beautifully judged film is utterly nail-biting. Forget the big budget blockbuster that tries to force tension onto you, there’s nothing more exciting than real life, and Kargman doesn’t have to do too much to make us sit on the edge of our seats.

The current climate in documentary film making is very healthy. After last year’s superb ‘Searching For Sugar Man’ and ‘The Imposter’, this specialist genre is deservedly getting much more attention. Similar in style to the equally brilliant ‘Spellbound’, about children at a Spelling Bee competition, this is a heart-warming, life-affirming tale with people you genuinely like to spend time with. You do, however, feel incredibly lazy once you’ve viewed their working day and can’t help but applaud their attitude to dancing and the pain and agony they go through to get there.

If I have one criticism it’s that the stories could have made six individual movies on their own and you do feel you want to know more about each child. Having said that, it still grabs you, makes you laugh, makes you clap and even makes you shed a tear. Such a joyful and captivating tale, eloquently told with the grace and class of a prima ballerina. I loved it.

Words: Stuart Wren

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