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Movie Review: Ballet Doc First Position Is Light on Its Feet

The kids who have it hard in Bess Kargman’s grueling/magical documentary First Position have chosen (or been thrust into) one of civilization’s most unnatural modes of expression: ballet, in which bodies are wrenched and twisted and molded to do what bodies weren’t designed to do — and in the process to enlarge our sense of what’s physically and spiritually possible.

This is yet another competition doc in the unending legacy of Spellbound (crossword puzzle fanatics, juvenile drag racers — everyone has his or her own competition doc), but Karger is light on her feet, too, and she has chosen to follow a fascinating group of kids preparing for the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix — where not only medals are awarded but also scholarships and even positions in prestigious companies.

There’s an 11-year-old Army brat already so airy and precise that he has only a glancing acquaintance with gravity and an adorably nimble half-Japanese American girl who doesn’t mind a bit that her mother has rearranged her (and her family’s) life to make her training paramount. In contrast to the lissome blonde Rebecca with her long, slender legs and tiny waist (and head), there is Michaela, a muscular black girl with impetigo adopted from Sierra Leone after her biological parents were murdered in a civil war — and who once saw a swan-necked ballerina on a magazine cover and thought that’s what she wanted to be — “so happy on her toes.” Her Jewish parents often hear that black girls aren’t built for classical ballet, and I’m sorry to confess that I myself didn’t think Michaela was a likely prima ballerina. At least when she was in repose. But seeing her spin on point, flabbergastingly diaphanous, I found myself convinced that a child’s hopeful spirit can actually triumph over the physical world.

Photo: Bess Kargman/Sundance Selects