In ballet, "first position" refers to a dancer's starting pose: arms bent, hands just above the navel. It's the point from which countless permutations spin out, each blossoming into variations upon variations. It's a fitting title for Bess Kargman's documentary, which traces the variances and vicissitudes of a half-dozen young dancers as they swirl through their own budding careers, converging at New York City's hyper-competitive Youth American Grand Prix, a sort of draft for aspiring classical dancers. The judges there represent the finest professional companies and academies in the world, commingling en masse to scout the prospects of younger dancers and dispensing esteemed scholarships to those in their mid-teens.
In its opening moments, First Position seems giddily filtered through the POV of one of its young subjects. Kargman's camera hyperactively jitters, the edges of the frame cut off adults' heads. It's invigorating, briefly, before its settles into conventionality, crosscutting between its subjects and their roundabout routes to the Grand Prix's dimmed stage. There's Aran from Naples, where his naval dad is stationed; Michaela, adopted out of a Sierra Leone orphanage with her sister; siblings Jules and Miko, who come from a self-proclaimed "ballet family"; Joan, who left his family in Colombia to train for London's Royal Ballet School; and Rebecca, an outwardly ordinary middle-American cheerleader gifted with enormous talent. ("I think I lead a pretty normal life," she says, driving a Honda with steering wheel gilded in downy pink fur.)
The doc bops along, passing between these dancers. It feels almost unbidden in places; a shot of a Jules and Miko eating dinner bleeds into crosscut scenes that analyze the dancers' diets, then back to Joan fretting over his family back in Colombia. Like most backstage dramas and sports pictures, First Position is obsessed with ritual and detail, with the laundry room of aspirant prima ballerinas stretching against washer-dryers and with Aran's wooden "foot-stretcher," a Spartan piece of sculpted wood that looks like it survived the Inquisition. "There're no people like show people," someone backstage offers later in the film. Kargman presents it as a sort of knowing platitude, set in relief against the film's preceding scenes of preparative banality.
Post-Black Swan, there may be a tendency to offer a manic, wrenched portrait of ballet, one which traces all the psychological and social strain, in addition to the blistered heels and bruised Achilles' tendons. There's a bit of this, mostly relegated to a dinner conversation where Rebecca's father loosely tallies the money he's spent on his daughter's "career," and the expectation that there be some kind of return on his investment. But it's to the film's credit that it doesn't get hung up on its fleeting elements of Toddlers & Tiaras-styled kiddie exploitation.
First Position opens itself to a critique of the pseudo-mystical thinking that shapes conceptions of ballet and ballerinas. Coaches, parents, judges, and the Grand Priz hopefuls themselves talk about "gut," "passion," "hunger," and all those other irreducible, frustratingly abstract qualities that apparently define the potential of a young classical dancer. It's classical exceptionalist mumbo jumbo, and Kargman doesn't bother to complicate it. But then this never seems like her project. Instead, First Position twists out its six narrative threads with measured compassion and even-handedness, winding back into its at-ready starting pose with its modest intentions left safely intact.