Compelling documentary following 6 young ballet dancers competing for the Youth America Grand Prix
The Youth America Grand Prix is one of the most prestigious young people’s ballet contests in the world, and this compelling documentary follows six of the dedicated hopefuls taking part, each from very different backgrounds but all sharing the same determination and commitment to succeed. Debut director Bess Kargman establishes herself as a skilled documentarian, drawing out humour and tension from the contestants’ experiences without manipulating their stories for melodramatic effect.
There is an inherent fascination in the painful discipline required of the ballet dancer: Darren Aronofsky exploited it for terrifying effect in Black Swan, but Kargman reveals something entirely opposite here, showing how that discipline engenders maturity and resilience in the young dancers, not just for their moments on stage but their wider lives too. Kargman finds this most powerfully in the story of Michaela, a 14-year old from Sierra Leone who was orphaned in horrific circumstances. It would take a hard heart not to be moved by her calm retelling of the hand life has dealt her, and equally not to be gripped by her struggle with a recurring injury that threatens to keep her from competing in the final stages.
Adhering closely to the formula found in previous ‘kids-in-competition’ docs Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, Kargman builds up a picture of the contestants’ personal lives and challenges whilst tracking their progress through successive (and successively more nerve-wracking) heats of the competition. But there is an added dimension of professionalism to this subject, and Kargman weaves in key issues – the astronomical costs involved, the harsh reality of the lack of employment opportunities in dance – giving the film added depth beyond the level of human interest. But it’s clear that Kargman is primarily interested in people, and anyone who shares that interest will find much to enjoy here.
First Position is showing at the GFT, Glasgow, Tue 5 Feb, as part of the Glasgow Youth Film Festival. Selected release from Fri 12 Apr.