Bess Kargman's First Position: A New Documentary on Competitive Ballet

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Ballet: A Competitive Sport?

Independent director Bess Kargman’s first film, First Position, documents the experiences of six dancers (plus others on the periphery) as they make their way to the Youth American Grand Prix finals in New York. If they succeed in the competition, the younger ones may gain scholarships to prestigious dance schools, while the oldest, seventeen year-old Rebecca, seeks a company contract. Before the screening, Kargman explained to the audience her desire to show more than “beautiful ballet.” First Position documents the struggles and hardships of pursuing a career in ballet. Yet all of the dance films that came to my mind (The Red Shoes, The Turning Point, Center Stage, The Company, and most recently, Black Swan) emphasize the difficulty, and even the horrors of ballet. Kargman seems to have wanted to bring more factual information about ballet to the mainstream, but not to challenge dominant ideas about the form. First Position has mainstream appeal in showing sensational and competitive aspects of the ballet world, documenting the triumphs as well as the mistakes that occur on-stage.

A new documentary film on the Youth America Grand Prix

But what makes First Position good, aside from the excellent footage, is that it offers a description of the world of competitive ballet, not a prescription for what ballet must be. It shows the importance of the competition and the opportunities associated with it for these young dancers. The treatment of the material isn’t overly sentimental, but by the end, we do feel that we have come to know the dancers through their personal and pre-professional lives. First Position doesn’t take a critical stance on the competition or vilify it, but it does show some of the risks of pushing the young dancers’ bodies to such extremes. The audience is permitted to judge the drawbacks and benefits of the competition for itself. Interestingly, the film also does not make the case that there is anything to be gained from the Youth American Grand Prix if one does not win, because all of the featured characters come away with a medal, a scholarship, or a company contract.

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Showing 6 comments
  • stephanie
    Reply

    I’m really looking forward to seeing this. Though, I still haven’t seen Pina!

    • Agnes
      Reply

      Pina is wonderful ! I wish I could see it again !!…

  • candice
    Reply

    I just saw this tonight and it made me feel rather old and a little sad. I came from a jazz competition background so I understand the obsession and the drive, but I got into ballet when I no longer wanted to compete. I saw ballet as the art alternative. The film seems to purport this ballet competition is the most efficient way to get a job, but is it really? I truly don’t know. It is definitely not how I landed any of my jobs.

    As good as the film was, it failed to contrast the pressure of cramming for this one competitive performance with the demands of the real professional world that all of these kids (and parents) purport to be striving for: a place where staying power, consistency, and many more performances are required of you (not to mention artistry!). Similar to teaching for an exam, this disconnect exposes the downside of focusing all of one’s training towards a competitive event.

    • rebecca
      Reply

      I agree that the film made competitions seem like the most efficient way to land jobs. I kept thinking, “What happened to company auditions? Don’t they still do those?” And I think picking companies and researching them before you go to their auditions is a great, efficient strategy.
      I think it was Rebecca in the film who said that the judges don’t see all of the hard work you put in; this was after her performance was really rough. Well, of course they don’t! So why are you putting yourself in a position where you are judged on the basis of two minutes of your dancing? The competition mentality does not bode well for staying power or artistry.

  • stephanie
    Reply

    While I still can’t put my spin on the film because I have yet to see it, there has been a rather consistant stance from my colleagues in the dance community. Candice, many of them had similar sentiments; the film, which is apparently produced very well, made them feel old and irrelevant. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the competitive ballet scene. I believe dance is an athletic pursuit, but it is balanced by the artistry of it. How can one judge something as subjective as artistry?

    Working at Lincoln Center, I see the eager little bunheads everyday, on their way to class with ballet bags en tow. I get such bittersweet emotions. Part of me is envious. They have their entire careers ahead of them, so many possibilities. But the other part of me is thankful I don’t have to go through it all over again. I’m really proud of the career I’ve had in MInnesota and now New York. I was never a bravura dancer, but was always told I was more of a performer–the artistic rewards were what kept me going through all of the disappointments, injuries, and setbacks. If tricks and turns are what companies are looking to hire these days, I would never be able to withstand the competition.

    I really must see this film now.

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