On Your Toes
Of recent non-fictions and fantasies on classical ballet and modern dance -- by Marina Kudláček, Ruedi Gerber, Bob Hercules, Wiseman, Wenders, and Aronofsky -- First Position is the most accessible and engaging to a general public. Bess Kargman “got lucky” seeking a topic, happening upon dancers lining a Manhattan street for the competition finals which were to become the emotional finale for her first film, which she also produced.
More aspirants must have been filmed, for Kargman could not have been so lucky as to focus on only six who turned out winners in several senses. The disparate half-dozen are attractive in themselves in terms of personalities gathered around a shared talent and dream. Behind them are the instructors and the parents who give of time and money -- home schooling, travel and fees, classes and costumes which run into college-education figures, jobs and locations taken for concomitant considerations. Some parents are more active than others, though all are supportive, some live through the youngsters, some are retiring while others are more in the stage-mother mold--fathers are much less a presence -- with one tiger mom among them.
The director is also fortunate, or instinctively sensitive, in that the interviews are natural and avoid the impression of the ubiquitous talking-head format. With no back-and-forthing in time, actual chronological sequence is allowed to play out, from local and regional tests to the climactic Youth America Grand Prix at New York’s City Center. Attended, in cases judged, by directors of the world’s finest ballet academies and troupes, famous even to laymen, this spring event can result in admissions, financial aid, and the exposure needed for contracts in a dance community of shrinking positions and opportunities.
In the wings as well lurks failure -- a slip or fall, bad timing, injury or simply not enough talent or drive. The story aims to dispel ideas that male dancers are homosexual or effeminate, females anorexic and blacks too big-boned for ballet. Parallel with any other physically demanding career, wrenching fitness exercises, practice and repetition are paramount, with injuries common and perhaps ending the dream. Bruised, skinned, bleeding and bandaged feet, blackened toenails, tears, sprains and stress fractures, grimaces of pain, are included in the price of continuing.
Apart from the documentary, in an NPR interview days before the 2012 YAGP honored her as the outstanding twentieth-century ballerina, Natalia Makarova conceded that, at thirteen, she had been somewhat old to begin the rigorous training but added the caution that toe-dancing should not begin too early -- analogous to throwing a curveball too young -- because of injury to or overdevelopment of muscles.
The six central competitor-figures range from grade- to high-schoolers, their backgrounds dissimilar and, aside from the suspenseful awards ceremony, their futures (i.e., now) indicated by printed end-titles. Only a hardened viewer could fail to be rooting for them and disappointed when any one appears to come up short.
Worried about visible pigmentation discoloration and limping on a sore Achilles tendon, Michaela DePrince lost both parents in Sierra Leone’s civil war but at four was adopted with another African orphan by a white New Jersey couple. Impressively built at sixteen, Joan Sebastián Zamora misses his family back near Cali, Colombia, calls home frequently and, aware of their sacrifices for him, hopes to be able to support them from the ballet stage.
Small for eleven, Aran Bell lives in Italy with his US-military family and has a puppy-love romance with Israeli aspirant Gaya Bommer Yemini. About to graduate from the high school where she used to cheerlead, Rebecca Houseknecht is the picture of a California Golden Girl, with the tall blonde looks. A fortuitous contrast between them are siblings Mike and Jules “JJ” Fogarty, London-born, San Francisco raised; their Japanese-born mother Satoko immersed herself from scratch in ballet and, an ever-present figure, tears up when Jules decides that, unlike his two-years-older sister, he “likes” but cannot “love” the regimen and throws it over in favor of schoolwork, games and roughhousing.
In journalism school, Kargman learned that a story is best if character-driven. Applying that principle, she does an excellent job here with this initial plunge into filmmaking, for her choice of participants could not have been better. The six young people choose a difficult path but remain attractive unaffected children. Good luck to them and to First Position.
(Released by Sundance Selects; not rated by MPAA.)