As good a corrective as you’ll find to notions about dance training perpetuated by Lifetime TV series Dance Moms, First Position is a clear-eyed, fair look at aspiring professionals who understand what “professional” means. Granted, this new documentary from Bess Kargman — a journalist who hung up her practice slippers at age 14 — focuses on the Youth America Grand Prix, a competition for serious ballet students mostly above the overtly sexualized and sequined fray of the Dolly Dinkle.
Any central subject in this 94-minute film could become a major classical artist. Well, anyone except First Position’s youngest player, Jules Fogarty, a preternaturally self-assured California 10-year-old who eventually decides to quit ballet. But his older sister, 12-year-old Miko, like the rest of the kids Kargman’s camera follows, is as career-minded as any would-be prima ballerina or danseur noble is by the time he or she enters high school.
First Position is as neatly organized as a ballet class. Combinations of clips delve into, in turn, the emotional, financial, physical and social costs of ballet training for devoted students and their families. And while the Fogarty siblings reinforce what you’d expect from real-world examples — their hovering mother drives a Jaguar and videotapes their private lessons — First Position is most compelling in its portraits of two courageous teenagers. Michaela DePrince, orphaned during civil war in Sierra Leone, and Joan Sebastian Zamora, from a poor family in Cali, Colombia, will handily remind if you’ve forgotten that elegance knows nothing of class.
Other assumptions about ballet dancers are likewise punctured by 11-year-old Aran Bell, a Navy-brat-without-the-brat; and his Israeli sweetheart Gaya Bommer, also 11, who’s not only a gifted technician but a shape-shifting, rambunctious stage actress.
Sound editing during the climactic awards ceremony feels suspiciously drawn out for dramatic effect, and there are too few substantive examples of real expertise transferred from teacher to student. By and large, however, First Position is among the best documentaries released to date about ballet.