Wednesday, May 2, 2012

FIRST POSITION: Bess Kargman's ballet doc opens, and TM experiences déjà vu

I wonder if Bess Kargman -- the director, producer and editor of FIRST POSITION, the new documentary that tracks talented ballet students vying for acclaim at a prestigious ballet competition -- saw the earlier and very fine documentary, Only When I Dance, a film by Beadie Finzi, which also tracks talented ballet students vying for acclaim at a prestigious ballet competition? (Distributed by Film Movement, Only When I Dance was also an official selection of the Tribeca Film Festival back in 2009.) I ask the question because the two documentaries have such similarities that, while watching Ms Kargman's movie one might easily confuse it with Ms Finzi's, especially where the films' leading South American male dancer is concerned (Kargman's hails from Colombia, Finzi's from Brazil -- and both are dark and gorgeous young men with incredible abilities in ballet). But while Only When I Dance* profiles two young dancers and runs 78 minutes, First Position tackles a half dozen of them and lasts a bit over 90.

Both films are worthwhile, but I give the edge to Ms Finzi -- who got there first & spends a longer, more productive time with her two students, their teachers, their families and their dancing. But since First Position opens in theaters this Friday and is well worth seeing -- if you enjoy dance, kids and the thrill of competitions -- let's address that film from here on in. Ms Kargman, shown at left and whose first film this is, has chosen her half dozen students well -- for their abilities, their singular stories and for how very photogenic they are. (Their looks, if not as important as their dancing, will serve them well in both competitions and careers.)

Among the kids we see and get to know a fair bit are Gaya (above, left) and Aran (above, right), both competing in the youngest division, who seem to appreciate each other's skills. Well-spoken and supremely talented, Aran has been dancing seriously since he was four years old.

Michaela (above) -- born, then orphaned by the rebels, in Sierra Leone, and finally adopted by a lovely older American couple -- proves an incredibly strong and able dancer, whose mottled and discolored skin condition is not, fortunately, visible from the distance of the stage. She is also black, and there appears to be an unspoken rule about black ballerinas never advancing into the best of the world's ballet companies. (This was true of Only When I Dance.) But, from what we see here, Michaela seems to be breaking that rule. Let's hope.

Rebecca (above, center, in blue), on the other hand, would seem to be your real, and rather typical, prize: Caucasian, blond, gorgeous face and body, plus terrific ability. And yet... Her story, too, should grab you.

Miko, above, is a mixed-race 12-year-old with a very good teacher and a stage-mother mom who proves quite useful. Watching this lithe and graceful girl dance as a Spanish señorita is both joyous and eye-opening.

Miko's little brother Jules, age 10 (above, being stretched by mom), is a contender, too -- though midway through the movie he makes a decision that seems awfully mature for someone his age.

Then there's Joan Sebastian, that Colombian hottie, age 16, who dances up a storm and has such flexibility that you'll gasp. They're all good, these kids, and Ms Kargman sees to it that we learn enough personal information about each that we're quickly hooked.

While the documentary has built-in suspense regarding the competitions and who will survive and prosper, the filmmaker doesn't squeeze this dry. She'll inform us of wins (or losses) when necessary, via on-screen notes. This speeds things along nicely. Watching the performers do their numbers is generally enchanting because we see enough unbroken/unedited dance to enjoy it as such, and then form our own opinions.

Crisp and fast-paced, First Position is a worthwhile addition to the dance-film canon, giving adult art-film movie-goers a good time while possibly enticing a new generation of kids to the dance.  The movie, from Sundance Selects, opens this Friday, May 4, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. In the Los Angeles area, it will open at Laemmle's Royal Theater in West L.A., Encino's Town Center 5 and Pasadena's Playhouse 7. In the weeks to come it will be arriving in theaters across the country from Atlanta to Washington DC.

*In addition to its similarities to Only When I Dance, this film also calls to mind another youths-in-competition documentary from last year, the under-seen Make Believe -- which followed six amateur magicians on the road to possible professional status.

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