First Position (Bess Kargman, 2011) is an enjoyable documentary about several children who want to pursue careers in professional dance, specifically ballet. In First Position ballet is unquestionably a sport and these dancers athletes, and this documentary follows the classic competition-driven narrative arc.
First Position provides profiles of several dancers of various ages, with Aran and Gaya among the youngest and Rebecca and Joan among the oldest. All of these dancers train hard in preparation for not only the Grand Prix but also a hoped-for career in dance. Each one has strong support from family and from coaches and teachers.
The competition driving these youth is the Youth America Grand Prix, which provides opportunities for dancers to earn scholarships and recognition. We meet them during the semi-final stage, which occur in various locations around the world. At this stage the competition begins with multiple thousand and narrows down to a few hundred, with only 30 scholarships available in the finals. Not surprisingly, all of them make it to the final rounds.
The final rounds take place in New York City. We see a little bit of everyone’s performance, and cutaways to audience members’ faces offer those of us unfamiliar with ballet some indication of how they are doing. Those cutaways ease some of the tension that builds when the medal and scholarship winners are announced. Among all of them, only one fails to earn a medal or scholarship, though she lands a job a few months later.
I appreciated two things in particular about First Position. One is the overall positive tone of the documentary. Many documentaries engage their subjects and their advocacy from a position of deficit in that something needs to change, and the end result, while engaging, is still a downer. While the competition sounds fierce, this documentary attempts to maintain an overall positive and supportive tone. We hear nothing about jealous siblings or frustrated parents.
The other thing I appreciated is little more subtle. The opening shot shows someone preparing a stage for the dancers by sweeping it. No music plays, so all we hear is the squeaking of the shoes across the floor. Something about that silence and that simplicity drew me in.