The Youth American Grand Prix (YAGP) is an annual international ballet competition, in which over 5000 dance students aged between 9 and 19 years old compete for elite scholarships with some of the world’s most prestigious companies and schools. First Position tracks six ambitious young dancers – Aran, Gaya, Michaela, Mike, Rebecca and Joan – as they train, travel the world and overcome self-doubt and overwhelming pressure in a bid to secure their place at the New York finals and come that bit closer to achieving their dreams.
Bess Kargman’s feature directorial debut seems effortlessly concocted as the focus flits back and forth between each of the dancers, in a way that both limits subjectivity and heightens enjoyment. Each of the six are introduced to in turn, from the fiercely competitive Michaela to Joan, who has made the daunting trip from Columbia not only to become a world-renowned dancer, but also to make enough money to support his family back home.
It exudes warmth and beauty, which is a wonderfully achieved contrast considering the hardships many associate with this style of dance (wrecked feet, limbs and aspirations). It’s a strength on its own merit, but when combined with the authentic way in which Kargman captures the moments these dancers share with their friends, families and loved ones, results in a documentary that reveals the honesty and compassion behind ballet, not the torment and horror that Darren Aronofky focused on in last year’s haunting Black Swan.
These dancers are presented as real people, each with their own personalities, doubts, worries and flaws. They have moments of high and moments of desperation and disbelief, but it’s all for something they believe in, for something they want to do for the rest of their lives. It’s not a phase to them, but a future and a career. Kargman captures this with unflinching honesty, and should be praised for the respect and admiration he shows towards both the people he’s exhibiting, their uncompromising dedication and to the art of ballet itself.
For some, First Position may be too slight, too sincere and too plain faced to truly invest in. But for those in need of something that bestows a voice both unto children with a clear focus and passion, it succeeds. Kudos to Kargman for defying expectations that come with the term “ballet” and presenting a world far removed of tiaras, spoilt children and forceful parents – one instead filled with ardor.