An outstanding film, pivotal in addressing the magnetism of the classical world of ballet, is “The Red Shoes” made in 1948 and starring Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook; why pursue an art form that cripples, deforms, eliminates childhood, loves; rewards: fleeting, ephemeral?
Bess Kargman’s “First Position” answers the question as she delves into the the lives and psyches of seven children struggling to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix; five thousand world wide participants, pared down to three hundred; eventually only a handful will garnish trophies and scholarships. Seven disparate children, ranging in age from ten to seventeen are the focus of this insightful, sensitive documentary. Despite their differences, they all possess Olympian dedication, drive, vision to excel; pushing, punishing, demanding from their bodies grotesquely unimaginable feats; defying nature, gravity, commanding their souls to soar, fly with the butterflies, kiss the wind, touch and achieve, even surpass their whimsical, wildest aspirations.
Those who have flirted with the definitive realm of ballet will recognize the torturous hours of practice, mangled toes, deformed arches, pneumatic ankles; falls, stumbles, that murder years of study; fervor, commitment, wills of iron propel them to dismiss the pain and forge forward.
“First Position” examines the families of the gifted, and the inimitable sacrifices they sustain to support their prodigies: “Joan Sebastian” rises from the poverty of Columbia; a visit home is one of the most compelling moments in the film; “Miko” of Asian-American descent, her passion and love of ballet is fed, nurtured by an overly -supportive, driven mother; “Michaela” an orphan from devastated Sierra Leone is given a chance to thrive by her adoptive parents, hers is a contemporary fairy tale; “Aran” divinely endowed, whose military family goes to monumental lengths to cater to their virtuoso son.
Unlike “Black Swan” “First Position” shuns the dark side of this mystical, magical profession; eating disorders, unhealthy rivalries , ruined lives. Instead, Kargman perspicaciously probes the hunger, ambition, tenacity, maturity lurking beneath the surface of these young, aspiring devotees of ballet.
Concluding, with a passage from “The Red Shoes”, a conversation between “Vicky” the ballerina, and impresario “Lermontov” :
Lermontov: “Why do you want to dance?”
Vicky: “Why do you want to live?”
Lermontov: “Well I don’t know exactly, but…….I must.”
Vicky: “That is my answer too.”
“First Position” touches upon, clarifies the illusive, messianic power that sabotages and monopolizes those individuals who live only to dance and dance only to live!