FIRST POSITION. Starring Aran Bell, Michaela DePrince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, and others. Directed by Bess Kargman. Rated G (General). 94 min.
This is an American documentary film about young ballet dancers competing in the Youth America Grand Prix for young performers (aged 9-19). All have a passion for Ballet, as dance. The dancers, supported by their families and coaches, are competing for scholarships that are coveted, and which potentially introduce them to professional ballet companies.
The film introduces the dancers, comments on their different backgrounds, and then focuses on the competition itself. It highlights individual dancers, often against expectations. The dancers, demonstrate startling cultural diversity, and come from a fascinating range of different socio-economic backgrounds.
For instance, there is a girl who lost both her parents in a civil war, another who grew up in abject poverty in Colombia, and a boy whose father took a military position in order to pay his child’s way, so that he could arrange for his son to have the best dance-teacher he could find. Then there is a girl, who is called Barbie by her peers for her artificial looks. She is perfectly happy about the derogatory label; all she wants to do is to dance well, and to impress the judges. Another girl’s family keeps her and themselves on a low-fat diet, to ensure that she stays slim.
The competitors in this documentary all stand out for different reasons. Three, who do that, are Aran Bell, Michaela DePrince, and Joan Sebastian Zamora.
Aran Bell began dancing in ballet as young as 4 and lived and trained in Europe, while his father was employed in an army base. He has an infectious personality, and a talent that shines.
Michaela DePrince was born during the civil war in Sierra Leone, and her parents were murdered. Michaela was adopted, and was inspired to pursue her life’s ambition by a photo that she a saw as an orphan child. She has a severe skin pigmentation that she hopes the audience won’t notice when she is dancing.
Joan Sebastian Zamora has extraordinary audience-appeal, and has a family which has sacrificed almost everything so that he can dance in America. His dancing is captivatingly brilliant.
The messages of being in competition that the movie shows are a little like the lessons learnt in “Chorus Line” (1985) which is an iconic movie about a group of young hopefuls, auditioning for a chance to participate in a Broadway dance production. A major impediment to performing well, and to succeeding, is peer pressure. Like competition movies before it, this movie shows disappointment, thwarted ambition, failure, and despair. Some children know they will never make the stage as a dancer either in the corps-de-ballet, or as a soloist, and socioeconomic features often intrude. Some children are not just good enough. Some struggle to afford the cost of their ballet shoes and clothes. Others tragically cannot display the talent they know they have for the judges who are looking. Then there are others, like Joan Sebastian Zamora, who are breathtakingly talented.
This is an inspiring, realistic film about the grandeur of dance, and the will to succeed in a highly competitive world. Not only does it show the lure of ballet as a dance-form, but it displays the resilience and courage of disadvantaged young people, who want desperately to change their life. Life has not been kind to many of these children, and ballet provides an escape beyond it to another, more fortunate, world.
This is a social, as well as an artistic documentary that many will enjoy. It is a must for ballet-lovers, and those who love to watch the joy of talented young people doing what they like best.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out April 11th 2013.