Must-win ballet competitions get a slapdash and saccharine reality TV treatment.
Unlike its lissom and impossibly flexible young subjects, director Bess Kargman will be winning no prizes, scholarships or kind notices for this extremely standard issue ballet documentary which sensibly charts the dainty highs and soul-crushing lows of life as a professional dancer. Structurally, this film latches hard to convention, following a selection of young hopefuls from across the globe as they prepare for the America Grand Prix where they are given just five minutes to impress the judges.
Though the human (melo)drama keeps things moving swiftly along, original insights are very thin on the ground: Kargman seems happy to let her subjects perform for her camera. The tough questions – most notable being what happens at that moment when you realise you've dedicated your life to a pursuit from which you are unable to make a living – float, unspoken, in the backdrop, often smothered by gooey affirmations about "living your dreams".
There are even cases where you feel the film fails to address its own subtext. Pre-teen prodigy Aran Bell speaks to the camera about how much he loves ballet. He plays with his pogo stick and unicycle on a small patch of grass, alone. His parents push him towards greatness, acknowledging that in his aggressive pursuit of dancing excellence, he will forgo many of the mainstays of childhood, such as sports, collaboration, friendship. It's interesting that his only friend is a young Israeli ballet dancer he meets on the circuit. She doesn't speak English, so their relationship is purely physical (so to speak).
It's not that these moments and ideas don't come through in the film, it's more that they are given no real emphasis which makes it feel too much like competition-based reality television. There's no sense of melancholy about Aran's emotional isolation, like the fact that he's such a great dancer makes up for his alternative childhood. But there's no real celebration either, a sense that Kargman is interested in the human toll – whether positive or negative – on these pirouetting upstarts.
First Position also offers screen time to the various instructors, who range from gesticulating, chain-smoking virtuoso types who are not averse to the odd slap to help things progress, to the softly-softly passive agressive types who sit back and roll their eyes at failure. The film also underlines that – despite films like Billy Elliot which suggest the contrary – ballet is strictly the preserve of the economic elite, with your average Tutu coming in at an eye-watering $1,500-$2,000. And that's before studio hire, lessons, shoes, physiotherapy and global travel for all the family.
American doc following young hopefuls attempting to break into the world of professional ballet.
The sort of film that would work as a warm-up for a big reality TV finale. Passes the time.
Settles for heartwarming "follow your dreams" platitudes rather than following the cold realities of being a dancer.