Directed by Bess Kargman. PG. 90 min. Opens July 20.
None of the teenaged dancers in First Position shove symbolic stuffed animals down trash chutes or suffer from hallucinations that they are turning into birds. So automatically, Bess Kargman’s documentary is a more authentic examination of the prima ballerina experience than Black Swan—not least of all because it allows for the possibility that the gruelling, precise work of dancing en pointe can actually also be fun.
Kargman’s subjects, all of whom are training for New York City’s Youth American Grand Prix, seem to either love what they do or are in the process of falling in love with it. They include a military brat stranded in Italy, an adopted West African orphan living in Philadelphia, and a Colombian teenager who has recently relocated to London. They’re not stereotypical ballet dancers (save for one blond, middle-American cheerleader type), and their observations about their lives and craft are appropriately spontaneous: They don’t seem excessively stage-managed. A lot of First Position’s charm resides in the gap between how gawky the kids are off-stage and how graceful they become when the lights go down. If the interview sequences are conventional, the dance interludes are shot so as to preserve the delight of watching bodies glide effortlessly through space.
Kargman and her editors have wrestled their half-dozen storylines into a slick, engaging commercial-doc format, and the need to keep things moving along means that she doesn’t dig particularly deep into certain areas. But even if First Position feels superficial at times, it’s also filled with a palpable affection for the talented, ambitious kids at its core.