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Movie review: Ballet documentary 'First Position'

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Since nearly every dance-related film and television project in this century has involved a contest or competition, however bogus, it was a good idea to make a documentary about the Youth America Grand Prix, a genuine, internationally recognized event where ballet hopefuls in a various age groups can win trophies, scholarships and contracts.

But Bess Kargman’s 90-minute “First Position” not only shows hundreds of dancers battling for recognition, it focuses on the professional ambitions and personal lives of seven participants, giving the film what we can call “Glee” appeal. What’s more, her chosen subjects all manage to live their dreams despite setbacks, disappointments and injuries---even if some of the happy endings come to light only in an update during the closing credits.

Although the music editing is crude and often undercuts the dancers’ excellence, the film editing remains masterly, fusing location footage, performances, interviews and reprocessed home movies in an entertaining and uplifting whole. Yet, there’s a dark side to “First Position,” starting with at least one stage mother as recklessly obsessive as the ones in “Black Swan” and the first “Center Stage.”

There’s also plenty of evidence to validate Isadora Duncan’s belief that ballet technique deforms women’s bodies. Yes, it’s easy to look at Michaela DePrince, Rebecca Houseknecht and Miko Fogarty in their tutus and imagine them dancing in a professional “Swan Lake.” But it’s just as easy to imagine them a few years after that lining up for hip replacements.

  Ballet competitions are often accused of rewarding technical skill over artistry, and much of the coaching here supports that criticism. The really dreadful contemporary choreography on view also dramatizes how much the world shown in “First Position” is estranged from and irrelevant to the creativity of dance in our time. Indeed, the dream pursued by the young hopefuls in the film is currently being rejected by many major stars of the ballet world--- renowned artists quitting companies such as the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, the Bolshoi Ballet and New York City Ballet to start or join smaller, less hidebound ensembles that foster innovation.

The ex-Royal firebrand Sergei Polunin has been quoted as declaring that the satisfactions of a life in ballet aren’t worth the sacrifices: especially the isolation imposed by the nonstop classes and rehearsals required.  And we see that isolation continually in this film, most of all in the scenes involving Joan Sebastian Zamora, continents away from everyone he loves.

Ultimately, “First Position” may document an approach to ballet that’s on its way out, and one can hope that Kargman continues to follow her subjects---especially the phenomenal Aran Bell---as they encounter changing balletic realities.

 “Second Position” anyone?

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