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Originally published Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 3:01 PM

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Movie review

'First Position' tracks exuberance and joy of young dancers

"First Position," a documentary directed by Bess Kargman, follows a half-dozen dancers training for the Youth America Grand Prix. The movie does not dwell on the possibility that these youngsters may not become professionals, but rather their exuberance and joy, says Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald. The film is playing at the Seven Gables.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'First Position,' a documentary directed by Bess Kargman. 94 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. Seven Gables.

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"You're not jumping, you're flying," a teacher reminds a ballet student in Bess Kargman's documentary "First Position," and he could be speaking for every kid in this film — they soar through the air like birds in tights. The film follows a half-dozen talented dancers as they train for and compete in the Youth America Grand Prix — a prestigious international competition that rewards its winners not just with trophies, but with scholarships to ballet schools and contracts to dance companies.

Kargman, demonstrating the diversity among the thousands of competitors, focuses on students from all over the world. Fourteen-year-old Michaela is a former war orphan from Sierra Leone, adopted by a Philadelphia family; 16-year-old Joan Sebastian left his Colombian family behind to train in New York; Californians Miko and Jules Fogarty, ages 12 and 10, are the children of a Japanese mother and a British father; Aran, an 11-year-old American, lives in Italy with his military family. There's also Rebecca, a willowy 17-year-old blonde from suburban Maryland, who would appear to have the most conventional path to success — she looks precisely like everyone's fantasy of a ballerina. But she's come of age at precisely the time when ballet companies, like other employers, are feeling the recession and making few new hires.

All of these students — except for the perpetually grinning Jules, who soon realizes (rightly) that ballet isn't for him — demonstrate remarkable talent and dedication, and we watch as they gracefully handle injury (Michaela), homesickness (Joan), ambitious ballet moms (Miko) and juggling ballet with regular-kid life. (Aran loves skateboarding and BB guns.) When the competition arrives, we realize we're rooting for all of them — perhaps especially for Michaela, whose smile seems to convey the realization of a very personal American dream, and for Joan, a quiet boy who pours everything he doesn't say into his beautifully fluid dancing.

The movie doesn't dwell on the very real possibility that none of these young people will spend their careers as professional dancers (only a tiny fraction of students achieve this); instead, it lets us enjoy their youthful exuberance, lingering with them on every jump. When it's over, you won't remember so much about who won and who lost. Instead, what remains is the expression on a young dancer's face, reflected in a mirror: showing the joy of being in love with what you do.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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