Review: First Position
The true measure of a kids competition movie is how much do the little buggers stick to your craw? In the documentary First Position there are more than a couple standout aspiring ballet dancers, ages 10 – 17, as they prepare for the Youth American Grand Prix, a gala event that annually awards hundreds of thousand dollars in scholarships and contracts with dance companies.
Eleven-year-old Aran, blond and serious as a heart attack, possesses talent that needs to be seen to be believed. Living in Italy, where his father’s an American army doctor, is no handicap whatsoever to the kid, who commutes two hours for lessons from an instructor who dubs Aran a once-in-a-lifetime find.
Twelve-year-old Miko is as innocently compelling as her Japanese mother is obsessively focused on her success. Sixteen-year-old Joan Sebastian moves to America from Colombia without his parents. We follow his progress all the way to becoming the first Colombian accepted into the British Royal School of Ballet, including a side trip as he reunites with his parents back home before the Grand Prix finals. Fourteen-year-old Michaela is an adopted war orphan from Sierra Leone whose fearlessness and verve are matched by her her Jewish mom’s enthusiasm, which includes dyeing Michaela’s flesh-colored tutus brown to match her skin. Being both black and muscular seem to feed her desire to be a ballet dancer rather than dampen it.
As in the equally astute and entertaining spelling bee competition film, Spellbound, kids in First Position seem to have an other worldly knack for their artistic pursuit whatever the degree of parental pushiness.
Miko and Michaela’s moms are at opposite ends of the bossy scale yet both children seem to have an equal inner drive. Michaela’s African experience of surviving her parents’ murder and that of her teachers both reflects and reinforces a great core strength, and she seems to need less steering and guidance. Conversely, Miko’s mom’s almost wacked-out domineering holds its own ironic charm given Miko’s far more laid back personality. There’s even a Philly angle in the film. Michaela trains at the Rock School for Dance Education in the city, and lives in Cherry Hill.
The performances leave you wanting more. Lotsa Swan Lake and flying, spinning tulles. Nothing like a tight, solid documentary profiling irresistible future professionals to offset the amateur stews of reality TV competitions we’re bombarded with like insincere parlor trick pests. In First Position these are real kids doing extraordinary things. Where does it come from? As the mom of Israeli competitor Gaya, who’s nicely captured as a normal kid chumming around offstage with Aran, puts it, “when she goes on stage , her face and mannerisms totally change into that of an adult.” Genius at any age transforms not just the artist but the audience as well.
8 Enthralling, No-Nonsense Kids Stuff (Out Of 10)