The slew of formulaic dance films Hollywood pumps out as tirelessly as the Duracell bunny somewhat skews perceptions of the dancing world. On film, rehearsal space is readily available, charitably given, or in a parking lot if you're a rebel. Abs are oiled and perfect at 9am, an injury is basically code for a group bonding opportunity and teachers are akin to insanely beautiful social workers. Nobody is plagued by wandering patellas, torn up feet, in-grown toenails or egomaniacal teachers with a penchant for soft-core abuse, as is often the challenging reality. So it is with open arms I welcome Bess Kargman's documentary, First Position, a film that shows ballet's bruises, battles and endless battement tendus with heart-wrenching honesty.
First Position follows six young dancers through the rigorous training and competition stages of the Youth America Grand Prix, an international ballet competition for dancers aged 9-19, culminating in medals, scholarships to dance schools and even contracts with ballet companies worldwide. Kargman captures a diverse range of backgrounds frequently absent from dance documentaries, which are often only interested in anorexic white girls with pushy stage mothers and an obsession with the pink and fluffy. Teachers come in all shapes and sizes, from the mad-cap fag-puffers, slapping 12-year-old's bellies into tight, taut, tucked away shape, to the mother hen females gently coaxing their young protégées out of their comfort zones. Parents are sometimes overbearing, controlling calorie-Nazis, but they also come in the bewildered-but-proud variety, rounding out First Position into so much more than the usual shock tactic material. Kargman's subjects are chosen with thought: ballet's usual narrow racial lens is widened to include a beautiful, thoughtful male dancer from Colombia and a gift sent from documentary heaven in the form of a striking dancer adopted by an American family from Sierra Leone. Both stories introduce oft-neglected discussion about the inherent racism in ballet; 'flesh-coloured' garments are tirelessly dyed and preconceptions endlessly battled in a world where African dancers must fight to prove they possess the ability to be graceful. That's not to say we aren't denied the satisfaction of a pastel-pink wearing, cheerleading purveyor of ditziness, unfolding a leg somewhere behind her ear and pouting while claiming to not understand why it's sexy... ah, America.
The competition element of the documentary does lend a frustratingly low-brow tone, as though Werner Herzog has somehow been duped into making a featurette for the Xtra Factor, but there's no denying that the will-they, won't-they final stages are sensationally thrilling, even if you have zero interest in the quality of the dancer's jetés. It does raise some questions about the nature of competitive dance: some of the young talent approach their art form like a technical exercise, eschewing artistry, emotion and subtlety for results-driven acrobatics - a subject which Kargman never pursues. Perhaps that's just another documentary for another day.
First Position could, in fact, have been expanded upon almost endlessly. Kargman's subjects were so rich in intrigue many deserved a whole film to themselves, and many stories felt rushed or left you yearning for more. But perhaps, like the best dancers, that's just the mark of a fantastic film.
First Position is a special treat for anyone who knows their en dedans from their en dehors, but is served with enough heart and suspense to appease those who couldn't tell a pirouette if it smacked them in the face. A beautifully executed documentary.