Each year, thousands of dancers vy for the opportunity to compete at the Youth American Grand Prix, a competition that showcases the cream of the crop to some of the most prestigious ballet schools and companies worldwide. For the competing 9-16 year-olds, it’s an opportunity to get noticed early on so that they are sought after for jobs when they are old enough. For the 17-19 year-olds, it’s an opportunity to receive scholarships to ballet schools or professional contracts with ballet companies. For some, it’s their only chance at making a dream (a dream that’s required hours of practice, countless injuries, and stupid amounts of money) a reality. Sixty seconds could decide your future.
Aran keeps his foot stretcher right next to his BB gun in his room; it looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. Miko is precocious, one of the oldest souls I’ve witnessed, and could be a huge star. Her brother, Jules, on the other hand, is talented, but doesn’t have the resolve to become a professional, but no matter, his humor and smile are priceless. This may be Rebecca’s only chance. Michaela has overcome unspeakable tragedy to follow her dream. If I were a teenager, I would want Joan Sebastian to be my boyfriend–so much soul and tenacity.
Aran, Miko, Jules, Rebecca, Michaela, and Joan Sebastian are all entrants of the Youth American Grand Prix and through the course of the documentary First Position, we learn about their history, their personal lives, and then follow them through what is undoubtedly the most nerve-racking competition of their lives.
Aran is 11. He started dancing when he was four. He currently lives near a U.S. Navy base in Naples, Italy where his family is stationed. By the way, they are stationed there because Aran’s father accepted a six-month assignment in Kuwait so they wouldn’t be relocated to a place where ballet training wouldn’t be available for Aran.
His instructor, Denys Ganio, is the stereotypical French ballet teacher, smoking during class, smacking his students on the stomach or the legs to remind them to tighten and activate their muscles– strict. But if you’ve ever been in the ballet world, you understand that this is love and commitment to a student, not bullying. You also see Denys praise Aran and ruffle his hair as if he were his own son.
“When I work with Aran, I’m not working with an 11 year-old boy. If we have one or two like him in our life, that’s a lot,” Denys remarks. And he’s not lying. It’s hard to remember that Aran is 11 when you see him dance. He’s mature and masculine and dedicated.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Michaela trains at The Rock School. But many years before her ballet training began, she was an orphan in Sierra Leone, Africa, during Sierra Leone’s civil war. Her parents were shot by rebels, leaving her orphaned. “It’s a miracle I’m even here,” Michael says. “When I was younger, I thought I was dreaming.”
At the orphanage, Michaela saw a dance magazine with a prima ballerina on the cover and she vowed that if she ever left Sierra Leone, she would become a prima ballerina. And she’s well on her way with the steadfast support of her adopted parents and the staff at The Rock School. But Michaela is also aware that to do so she has to battle racial stereotypes to prove that a Black ballerina can also be graceful and light and delicate.
Colombian-born Joan (pronounced “Joe on”) Sebastian left his native country to follow his aspiration to be a professional ballet dancer. At the age of 16, he lives in New York City with a roommate, training every day, and using calling cards to connect with his family when he can. The documentary doesn’t touch on his financial or school situation, but I imagine that his life revolves around dancing; chances are good he doesn’t attend school and may have a job.
Despite all of this, the smile that blooms on Joan Sebastian’s face when he speaks of his love for dancing proves that though unorthodox, it was the right decision for him to leave his family and follow his dream. His entry in the Youth America Grand Prix could make or break his career.
Over the past 10-15 years, the amount of money Rebecca’s parents have invested in her ballet education and performance could fund four years of college. Needless to say, the stakes are high for her at the competition. At 17, her career as a ballet dancer began yesterday. She needs an offer from a company at the Youth America Grand Prix in order to justify the years of practice and financial strain. A self-defined “princess,” Rebecca is a seemingly-perfect candidate for company membership. She is commercially beautiful, her body is lithe, flexible, and lean, and her talent is crazy.
“Most kids my age, they’re not 100% sure what they’re gonna to do, but I know I’m gonna do ballet for the rest of my life. Most people that say I’ve missed out on childhood, I think I’ve just had the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.”
Enter Miko, 12 years old and ready for the rest of her life to start already. Her mother, Satoko, has devoted her life to helping her children achieve their dreams (yes, she’s a stage mom–overly involved and invested, but she isn’t scary the way the moms on Toddlers and Tiaras are). Miko is home schooled so that she can have more hours in the day to practice ballet.
Her brother, Jules (10), trains with Miko, but it’s obvious that he would rather be reading a Calvin and Hobbes comic book than donning tights and practicing tour jetes. He has more talent than most 10 year-old boys pursuing ballet, but you can tell his heart isn’t in it for the long haul. His understanding of a man’s role in ballet and his devilish grin all but make up for it though. He’s trying so hard (in the shadow of his sister, no doubt), and we all love an underdog.
Gaya, a close friend of Aran, is from Israel and she’s adorable and youthful offstage, but onstage, she has a maturity that astounds. Her mother creates her routines and does her choreography; you can see the pride she has for her daughter, but she’s less of a stage mom and more of a steadfast support system. Aran and Gaya together–they are utterly adorable. While watching the documentary, I had daydreams about the two of them getting accepted into the same company, growing and dancing together.
These are the high stakes stories of First Position…and they are riveting, emotional, feel good, heartbreaking, and amazing. Watching the dedication and passion these kids possess, you get invested. You want to root them on. You want to see them succeed, because they’ve worked so hard and they want it so bad. Many times throughout this film, I clapped, I cheered, I exclaimed. I bet my roommate was wondering what was happening downstairs!
Added bonus – The DVD contains bonus footage of all of the dance routines in their entirety, which is a feast for the eyes. This is a must-see for any dancer or appreciator of the arts.
So, who wins and who fails? You’ll have to watch it to find out!