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