Every year, thousands of aspiring dancers enter one of the world's most prestigious ballet competitions, the Youth America Grand Prix, where lifelong dreams are at stake. In the final round, with hundreds competing for only a handful of elite scholarships and contracts, practice and discipline are paramount, and nothing short of perfection is expected. Bess Kargman's award-winning documentary, FIRST POSITION, follows six young dancers as they prepare for a chance to enter the world of professional ballet, struggling through bloodied feet, near exhaustion and debilitating injuries, all while navigating the drama of adolescence. A showcase of awe-inspiring talent, tenacity and passion, FIRST POSITION paints a thrilling and moving portrait of the most gifted young ballet stars of tomorrow.
Youth America Grand Prix has been a launching pad for ballet careers since 1999. The dance world has known this for years, and now, the rest of the world can get a glimpse of its talent, too. First Position, a documentary following exceptional students from their home studios to the 2010 YAGP finals in New York City, not only shows the high-stakes nature of the competition, but the passion that these young dancers have for their art. Luckily, the tears and shots of bloody feet are kept to a minimum—we see these kids actually having fun.
The performances at YAGP provide a narrative and run the gamut from triumphant to heartbreaking, but the film’s real appeal lies in the dancers’ backstories. Among the six students, we meet the incredibly precocious 11-year-old Aran Bell, an American living in Naples who makes the hour-and-a-half trip to Rome every day to study with Denys Ganio (the scene of Ganio smoking while teaching a class in rapid-fire French is wickedly wonderful). Rebecca Houseknecht, a 17-year-old Maryland Youth Ballet student who loves pink and gave up cheerleading for ballet, is focused on getting hired by one of the many companies offering apprenticeships at YAGP. The very handsome Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, whose shy smile and phone calls home to his parents in Colombia have you rooting for him, worships Carlos Acosta and hopes to get a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School. Miko (10) and Jules (12) Fogarty, who train at the Diablo Ballet apprentice program, start out as a brother/sister package, but Jules just isn’t interested in the art that his sister loves so much. Michaela DePrince, a talented 14-year-old from the Rock School who was adopted from war-torn Sierra Leone, battles tendonitis at the finals.
The documentary was directed and produced by filmmaker Bess Kargman. In 2009, after noticing a group of young dancers outside New York’s Skirball Center, she followed them into the competition and was so inspired by what she saw that she quit her job to make this film. By all accounts, it received a standing ovation at a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Kargman has managed to make a film that not only documents the Herculean amount of work and sacrifice that it takes to become a professional ballet dancer, but also conveys why a teenager would choose that life.