TIFF: ‘First Position’ is an enjoyable look inside the competitive world of ballet

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First Position

Directed by Bess Kargman

2011, USA, 90 mins.

There are few joys in the world like watching someone who is extremely talented do what they love. This is the best thing First Position has to recommend it. The film follows a handful of ballet dancers, ages eleven through seventeen, as they train to compete in one of the most prestigious ballet competitions in the world: the Youth America Grand Prix in New York.

I realise that ‘talented’ is an adjective frequently and carelessly thrown about—especially when it concerns children. Here are some others: world-class, incredible, and brilliant. Overused though they are, when applied to the youths featured in First Position, these words are apt.

It Takes a Village to Train a Dancer

Beautifully shot and evenly paced, First Position showcases seven young ballet dancers and how their lives are devoted to ballet. Director Bess Kargman avoids an appearance (though uses title cards, sparingly, when appropriate), but expands the cast to include the dancer’s families, teachers, choreographers, and judges. Though she casts a wide net, Kargman is careful to include only the most essential commentary. She frequently complements her cast’s words with beautiful shots of dancing and juxtaposes them with more candid and vulnerable moments.

It is perhaps trite to say that a film about an aesthetic discipline looks beautiful, but First Position does. It certainly helps that dancers are well lit, but more to the point, Kargman keeps her cinematography simple. To be too clever would distract from the dancing.

Young Professionals

This film reminds me of two other documentaries released this year: Hollywood Complex, in that it’s about youth competing for a spot in a demanding industry, and Fightville, in that it’s about the hard work and sacrifice necessary to be the best at something. Of course, packaging hard work, talent, and sacrifice in the form of youth makes First Position different. The stakes seem higher. The odds seem longer. The reward seems more essential.

That said, my main criticism of the film (spoilers ahead) is this: it mainly follows dancers who become successful. That sounds like an awful thing to say, but success means less if we don’t also see failure. The tension of the film is built on the premise that few succeed—in an earlier regional qualifying round, three dancers out of three hundred qualify to compete in New York. That tension is lost when six out of the seven dancers followed either win something or land jobs. It is an oddly sugary ending to what had up until that point been a fairly blunt film. There is a moment when another dancer falls and runs off stage. In my mind, his story is interesting too—and the film misses an opportunity by not telling it.

There, spoilers over. My criticism aside, First Position is an enjoyable look inside the competitive world of ballet. In my mind, the talent of the dancers alone recommends the film.

– Dave Robson

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 8 – 18th


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