First Position (Bess Kargman, USA, 2011)



I love documentaries on ballet. I like seeing the toil, the boredom, the grind of constant effort, the blistered feet, the pain, the process. I find it interesting that all of this is in the service of the unnatural, of getting one’s body to contort in ways it wasn’t designed to, and thus do things that we call ‘marvelous’ because they’re not natural, they’re not ordinary. I somehow find it moving that all these years of grinding out the practice, of sweat and hurt are mobilized into the creation of an ideal of beauty that is both precise and evanescent, that disappears the moment it’s achieved, so fleeting that if you blink you’ve missed it.

There’s something interesting too about the composition of the cast in these films. Ballet is international so ballet films always feature characters from different countries interacting with each other; yet the action or story tends to have particular settings, be it a ballet school in Paris or London, so these characters’ are often seen as adapting to the culture of their school or company.

This documentaries follows six young dancers of various ages as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a contest that could determine their future as dancers, thus the culture of home, of comfort and feeling, is usually placed in contrast with the culture of work and achievement. The stories I found most interesting were those of two mixed race siblings (mother Japanese, father Australian) whose mother is determined to have them realise her dream. The girl wants to be a dancer but does the boy? The mother has the potential to be the stage mother from hell but will she be?

The other story I found very moving was of Joan Sebastian Zamora, a 16 year old from Columbia training in NYC because Columbia has no ballet culture. He’s got a girlfriend. They eat with their legs stretched out in a semi-split, stretching each other’s legs as they do so and sometimes tapping endearments on each others’ toes with arched feet. His whole family’s well-being seems to be riding on his future as a dancer.

Lastly, there’s Michaela Deprince, a black girl from Sierra Leone adopted by a very loving and supportive white American couple. She saw her biological parents and teachers hacked to death before her eyes as a three-year old. She was almost not adopted because she had white skin blotches all over her neck. Seeing her, one senses a desperate striving to find in ballet the control and beauty not afforded by life. But ballet has historically not been very welcoming to black dancers. Will Michaela succeed? A lovely and moving film.

José Arroyo

Leave a Reply