Ballet doesn’t have the same visceral kick to it as spelling bees, and truthfully, First Position is only generically similar to Spellbound, the hit competition doc that birthed a litter of them (Murderball, Mad Hot Ballroom, etc., etc.). Trailing a sextet of teens en route to the Youth American Grand Prix, Bess Kargman’s chunk of non-fiction may build to a splashy, climactic dance-off. But it doesn’t revel in the potential failure of its subjects, because why would anyone? These are hard-working, oft-cash-strapped kids, and Kargman wisely and sanely dwells upon the lead-up—the intense preparation, the backgrounds of difficulty and strife, the fears that their careers might be over even before they exit high school.
Kargman chooses her cast well. Aran is a male prodigy whose military dad has to routinely shuffle them around the globe, sometimes to spots far from where anyone is practicing dance. Michaela, 14, is an orphaned refugee of Sierra Leone, adopted by kindly Philadelphians. Suffering from intense skin pigmentation, she endures strangely prominent racial profiling, with many in the dance world openly wondering whether those of darker colors can even achieve elegance. Jules and Miko engage in sibling rivalry. Joan has left his family in Colombia for the greener pastures of London. And for some kind of good measure, there’s a well-off blonde goody-goody whose nickname at school is “Barbie.”
First Position gets into the nitty-gritty, exploring, among other topics, how the male dancers have to overcome nasty stereotypes, either by ignoring their taunters or proving that ballet requires athletic rigor that trumps more traditionally masculine sports. Kargman mostly stays anthropological, although she drowns her footage in an unnecessarily twinkly score that baldly manipulates our emotions; a scene where Joan makes one of his routine calls to his parents, who insist there’s nothing for him back home, doesn’t need sad piano dithering to be devastating. The finale performances are a bit of a bust, too, with the editor eliding most of them by way of dissolves. But the meat of First Position is backstage anyway. For a competition doc, it’s happily lacking in competition.