Film Review: First Position

Truly exhilarating documentary about gifted young ballet dancers competing for scholarships and contracts with the world’s top ballet companies is at the top of its genre. Credit the dancers themselves, their thrilling performances and revelat

About a decade ago, Spellbound and its spelling-bee whiz kids set the high mark for the kid countdown-competition nonfiction film. This latest entry, First Position, a multiple fest award winner, makes a magnificent grand jeté leap into this sturdy, seductive doc genre. The best of these films leverage their inherent drama (Who will win?) and personalities (We want them all to win!). The not always predictable formula, adhered to here, showcases remarkably appealing young people with awe-inspiring skills and much at stake.

First Position, which will totally delight balletomanes and all those who value beauty, talent and off-the-grid determination, travels near and far (San Francisco, Italy, Colombia, etc.) to follow six young ballet hopefuls seeking recognition in the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world's most prestigious ballet competitions. The big event, the film’s denouement, unfolds at New York’s City Center, where contestants and scouts from the world’s top ballet companies gather. Winners receive awards and scholarships and contracts.

The wannabes at the heart of this thrilling doc include young teen Miko Fogarty, a Northern California-based Japanese-American who is the daughter of a British-born father and Japanese “backstage” mother, Satoko. Mom allows Miko online schooling so that she can devote more time to ballet. With considerable training, multiple awards behind her and no shortage of determination, Miko seems on the right path to a professional ballet career. The City Center event will tell all.

Her younger brother Jules, who began his ballet training when he was four, is also gifted. He too trains for the big competition but, not quite as focused, just may be more motivated to emulate his entrepreneur father.

Eleven-year-old Aran Bell, bursting with personality, skill and love of ballet, is clearly a prodigy. Originally from Washington State, he relocated to Italy with his family when his father became a military doctor on a Naples Navy base. Trained in Europe, Aran is already a multiple competition winner. But so much training and dedication do not deter him from his love of skateboarding and playing with his action toys. In the doc’s bow to romance, Aran also develops a big crush on Gaya Bommer Yemini, an immensely talented Israeli dancer, who returns his interest (in spite of their language barrier) and is part of the competition.

The oldest of the bunch and one of the most impressive of the competitors is 16-year-old Colombian Joan Sebastian Zamora. With dreams of dancing for the Royal Ballet in London, he left a village near Cali and settled in Queens. Tracking his visit back home, the doc makes clear that Joan mightily benefits from a loving and supportive family.

But it’s Sierra Leone war orphan Michaela DePrince who has the most amazing backstory. Adopted by a middle-class Jewish couple in Philadelphia after she and her family endured unspeakable horrors in Africa (she witnessed her parents being killed by rebels), she fell in love with dance and got the best training her modest and oh-so-loving adoptive parents could provide. Michaela won multiple scholarships to prestigious schools, including the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. She persevered in spite of considerable challenges, including faulty skin pigmentation. Even on the eve of the film’s competition, she suffers severe foot damage. But what spirit and determination!

Also bursting with talent and determination is girl-next-door cheerleader type Rebecca Houseknecht, a high-school princess prototype with her mind set on a dance career.

In addition to its up-close look at these endearing talents, First Position has the added advantage of sharing with viewers many of their dazzling ballet performances. There’s also insight into the art itself and those factors that build confidence. Beyond skill and hard work, personality and technique also foretell success. Even costume and shoe choices, albeit expensive, play a role, as do passion for ballet and family and teacher support.

Of course, First Position gets down to its real business with footage of Youth America Grand Prix’s City Center finals. Viewers won’t be let down. Above all, the film—galaxies away from a bummer like Bully—provides a huge injection of optimism that things in the future are being left in the right young hands.