“First Position” Follows Young Ballet Dancers Competing for Jobs, Scholarships

Being released into theaters in major markets this month, including Pittsfield’s Little Cinema in the Berkshire Museum, First Position is an extraordinary film, the first of its kind to go behind the scenes at the Youth America Grand Prix, a major international dance competition. I had an opportunity to screen it ahead of time, and it is fascinating.

First Position will be screened at the Little Cinema from June 8-12 at 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday with a matinee showing at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

The film gets its extraordinary footage by following the ootsteps of six talented ballet dancers (ages nine to nineteen) as they struggle to maintain form in the face of injury and personal sacrifice on their way to one of the most prestigious youth ballet competitions in the world. First Position is a feature length documentary about a love of dance and a drive to succeed that trumps money, politics and even war.

In the film we meet seven up and coming ballet students: Jules Jarvis Fogarty, age 10, Aran Bell, age 11, Gaya Bommer Yemini, age 11, Miko Fogarty, age 12, Michaela DePrince, age 14, Joan Sebastian Zamora, age 16 and Rebecca Houseknecht, age 17.

Joan Sebastian Zamora

The most striking story is that of he 17-year-old dancer, Joan Sebastian Zamora. We follow his progress from Cali, Columbia, through the United States and finally as he wins a coveted scholarship at the School of the Royal Ballet in London. His never ending hard work contrasts wonderfully with the knock-out gorgeous Rebecca Houseknecht whose attention is not as dedicated, as her focus is distracted by a dozen other activities. Her looks, immense popularity and outside interests are actually deterrents to her dance career. All that praise and adoration colors her perception of the work that still needs to be done to be a world class dancer. With everyone around her constantly praising her, the fire in her belly has gone out. She earns accolades, and awards anyway.

Michaela DePrince is the absolute opposite of Rebecca Houseknecht. The 17-year-old dancer — born in Sierra Leone and raised in Cherry Hill — appears in the April issue of Marie Claire and will be the subject of a spread in a forthcoming Teen Vogue.She even has appeared on Dancing With the Stars. Her drive an dedication to be the best dancer possible is the most uplifting element of First Position. You can’t make these life stories up.

First Position’s Director Bess Kargman struck paydirt when she chose 10 year old Jales Jarvis Fogarty and his sister Miko. In the film, director Kargman portrays the boy Jules as typical and normal, loving his videogames, sports and all the things typical of that young age. (The video clip up above gives you a brief look at all these young dancers.)

The film builds each dancer’s life bit by bit. It is two thirds through the film that he decides to ‘fess up and tell his parents that he doesn’t want to continue, that he’s been putting on a game face, and wants to quit. Watching the lead up to this in the film, it was obvious that much of the time the kid was just going through the motions, so it was surprise to this viewer, nor, apparently, to his parents. Still as the youngest competitor, he received encouragement and an award of his own.

Six promising dancers, six fascinating stories.

Editing a dance film which tries to follow six overlapping careers is no mean feat, especially balancing the slice of life portions with the performance footage. Credit for this has to go to Kate Amend, the film’s editor. We get plenty of both, and the variety of dancers and personalities is endlessly fascinating. One of the challenges of capturing dance on film is to accurately portray the dance sequences without cutting off any limbs, and Director of photography Nick Higgins did that very nicely, cutting away only for reaction shots and close ups of the dancers exerting themselves. Shooting rehearsal and class sequences in darkish studios with bright sunlight streaming through walls of windows is no small feat either.

First Position debuted at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and was named the audience choice’s first runner up for Best Documentary. It also won the Jury Prize at the San Francisco Documentary Festival and the audience award at DOCNYC.

With unprecedented (and exclusive) access to the Youth America Grand Prix, the largest competition that awards full scholarships to top ballet schools, First Position takes audiences on a yearlong journey around the world. At a time when art, music and dance for children are severely under-funded, the film reveals the struggles and success, the pain and extraordinary beauty of an art form so many children across the globe are determined to dedicate their lives to . . .despite the odds. From the scenes of intense beauty to those of bleeding feet and pulled muscles, this is truly a documentary about the toughness of mind it takes to pursue the most athletic of all art forms – ballet. It’s not for sissies.

If the film is not screened in your area (check the film’s website) it will surely be released on DVD in the near future. If you have any interest in dance, it is an absolute must-see.

(2011, USA, 90 min, color, 35mm • Director: Bess Kargman • Cast: Jules Jarvis Fogarty, Aran Bell, Gaya Bommer Yemini, Miko Fogarty, Michaela DePrince, Joan Sebastian Zamora, Rebecca Houseknecht)

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