While The Avengers raged record-breakingly at the box office this weekend, another band of plucky folks were performing their own superhuman feats in a couple of art-house theaters in New York and Los Angeles — and who will, by month's end, have made their way to much of the rest of the country. So if you find yourself, in the midst of all the summer movie season noise and effects, in dire need of something quieter, more human, but no less awe-inspiring, perhaps find the time to check out the new documentary First Position. The film follows six young hopefuls as they compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, the world's largest youth ballet competition and the platform from which many professional ballet careers have been launched. And while no one shoots lasers out of their hands or runs around punching Norse gods in the face, First Position is at times just as thrilling as Marvel's epic superhero saga. It probably won't be in theaters for too long, gotta make room for Battleship after all, so run out and see it quick if you need a blast of theater air conditioning but can't quite stomach another explosion. It will be worth your time!
Like Spellbound, the great 2002 documentary about kids competing in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, First Position bowls you over by showing young people operating with deeply focused, adult intensity. These people — most of whom have yet to date, shave, drive, etc. — are capable of clearly defining their goals, distilling all the scattered passions of the human brain into one bright, specific point, in a way that most supposedly more mature, and thus serious, people are completely unable to do. Of course that intensity comes at a price, there is a lot of core-shaking disappointment and rejection involved in these pursuits, but when these kids succeed it is transcendently glorious, they leap from the earth and take flight, sometimes quiet literally.
First Position tells maybe a bigger story than Spellbound. With ballet we are dealing not just with fiercely determined mindsets, but also a kind of physical punishment that is mind-bogglingly brutal, exacting, and constant. As Black Swan recently showed us to horror movie effect, ballet dancers stretch to the point of tearing their skin, their bones creak and crack, their limbs bend in otherworldly ways. Of course the great lie of ballet is that it appears so light and graceful, it's ethereal, feather-like, but in truth is as full-contact and physically demanding as football. So these devoted prodigy kids are not only willing to sacrifice social lives and other common kid concerns, they are also inflicting daily physical pain upon themselves, straining and near about abusing their bodies in their relentless pursuit. And then on top of that, once the mechanically physical aspects have been shored up, there is artistry and feeling to be considered. Not only must you be an ideal physical specimen to succeed in ballet, you must also smooth over all that hardness and sinew with thoughtfulness and expression, lightness and grace. These kids are doubly blessed/cursed, artist athletes who have to keep two occasionally contradictory fires burning.
To illustrate all this human drama, the filmmakers (First Position is directed by first-timer Bess Kargman and filmed by experienced documentary cinematographer Nick Higgins) selected a satisfyingly diverse cross-section of kids. There's 16-year-old Joan Sebastian, a doe-eyed lad from Colombia who has the weight of his family's hopes added to his own. There are Miko (12) and J.J. (10), a brother and sister pair with a well-intentioned if often domineering Japanese mother. Aran, age 11, is a military brat who studies with a cigarette-sucking Frenchman in Rome, and who is, according to his mentor anyway, a rare and extreme talent. Gaya, also 11, is an upbeat girl from Israel whose mother is a choreographer and who shows an eye-popping aptitude for eclectic modern ballet. Rebecca, the oldest of the cast at 17, is a blonde, Palo Alto-dwelling, former cheerleader American ideal who also happens to be really good at, and really devoted to, this insanely difficult art form. And, sure to be the audience favorite, there's Michaela, a 14-year-old girl from Sierra Leone who, after witnessing horrific brutality in the bloody civil war that ravaged that nation in the 1990s, was adopted, with a friend turned sister, by a kindly older couple living in Philadelphia. Michaela is determined to buck the prejudiced thinking in ballet that considers black women not graceful enough for the job, and she's also of course got the trauma from her early childhood to dance her way through. All of the kids are charming, and all of the adults in their lives refreshingly not stage parent monsters or cruel coaches. There is sternness and there is pressure, but this is not a horror story.
In fact, the dancers of First Position all seem pretty blessed. The Youth America Grand Prix is most important to the older kids, in that it awards scholarships to prestigious ballet schools across the world. So a top performance at this competition can seal your fate — some people even get offered contracts with companies right there on stage. And while I won't spoil anything in particular about how these kids individually fare in the competition, I will say that Kargman and her producers have picked a particularly talented group from an already talented pool of potential subjects. I'm not sure I felt quite enough of the struggle in these kids' stories, beyond the obvious day-to-day battles with heart, mind, and body. Of course this is a documentary and there's no overt manipulating of a story to be done — what happened happened — but in simply seeing a group of kids on their way to, or nearly almost at, the most ascendant point in their early ballet careers, I'm not sure if we see enough of the negative. This is a hard business, and while good things often go right within it, there is a layer of loss and defeat, or at least the ever-hanging potential for those things, to the business that we don't feel quite palpably enough in the film.
That said, if you are, like me, a sucker for these "kids doing amazing, crazy, youth-defying things" documentaries, First Position satisfies on nearly every level. What wonders these small people are, with every startling and glorious arabesque and leap and lunge reminding us not just of their impossible talent, but of all human potential. A real, natural force that, when correctly tapped into, lifts us higher than any Hulk could ever jump.