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'First Position' puts ballet dreams on the line for 7 youngsters ✭✭✭ 1/2

Tribune Newspapers critic

"Gotta dance!" is what Gene Kelly insists in "Singin' in the Rain," and the driven young people featured in the irresistible "First Position" would enthusiastically agree.

As directed by Bess Kargman, "First Position" is in part the latest wrinkle in a documentary subgenre that's proved wildly popular. Combine eager youngsters with the elixir of competition and, whether it's spelling bee rivals in "Spellbound" or recreational dancers in "Mad Hot Ballroom," you have a formula for maximum audience engagement.

But because, as its title indicates, "First Position" is set in the world of classical ballet competition, the situation is even more compelling and emotionally involving. For young people, it's more than a hobby or a sidelight. Ballet consumes lives and involves an overwhelming commitment of time, emotion and funds from not only the child but also his or her adult support group.

"First Position" focuses on the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world's premier events that starts with 5,000 entrants and concludes with 300 contestants in the tenser-than-tense finals held annually in New York. Unlike the situation in "Spellbound," where the nature of the event allows for only one winner, this contest, which awards scholarships and company contracts as well as trophies, allows for a handful of successful competitors, though the battle is still superintense.

The seven kids "First Position" focuses on have been carefully chosen by filmmaker Kargman, who started with advice from Grand Prix officials and then put her background as a working journalist to good use. Though they have traits like perfectionism and zeal in common, and they have made similar life decisions, often opting for home-schooling to ensure more time to dance, these young dancers are very different in personality, background and situation.

From a purely dance point of view, the competitor who makes the strongest impression is also the youngest, the preternaturally gifted 11-year-old Aran Bell, who lives with his American military family in Italy. He's been dancing since he was 4 and says, "I love ballet so much it's hard to explain." Aran commutes two hours daily to five hours of training.

Perhaps the most compelling human interest story belongs to Michaela DePrince, a 14-year-old war orphan from Sierra Leone, adopted by a family in Philadelphia, who remembers "everywhere you looked, you saw someone die for no reason." Fixated on ballet since she saw a torn magazine cover at the orphanage, Michaela has to fight the prejudice that "everyone knows black girls can't dance ballet."

These performers are so young, so serious, so full of dreams and so hard on themselves that it is difficult not to be moved by their striving. With their futures on the line, each one has, as one of the judge's comments, "five minutes onstage to prove why you deserve this chance and not somebody else." That's a recipe for involving drama.

'First Position' -- 3 1/2 stars

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1:30

Opens: Friday

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