Copyright ©2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


Finally, this hour, a documentary that's been winning awards at festivals and soon opens in theaters across the country. It's called "First Position," and it's about ballet. The film follows seven young dancers as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a high-stakes international ballet competition. Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: The first person we meet in "First Position" is a very mature 11-year-old named Aran Bell. His father is in the military. He likes to skateboard and jump on his pogo stick.


ARAN BELL: I began dancing when I was 4 years old.

BLAIR: When little Aran Bell hits the stage, he turns and leaps with the poise and fire of a professional.


BELL: I love ballet so much. I don't know. I just love it so much that it's hard to explain.

BLAIR: The personal stories of the dancers in "First Position" are very different. There's a 16-year-old who moved to New York by himself from his native Colombia in search of opportunities. There's a 14-year-old named Michaela DePrince, who was adopted from Sierra Leone when she was a toddler.


MICHAELA DEPRINCE: My parents were shot by the rebels, and so my uncle brought me to the orphanage, and I lived there.

BLAIR: Michaela DePrince's journey from an orphanage in Sierra Leone to a family in New Jersey is extraordinary, and so is her dancing. Her legs seem to extend forever.


BLAIR: Michaela's mom, Elaine DePrince, makes most of her daughter's costumes.


ELAINE DEPRINCE: These little undergarments they wear under their tutus, they don't come in dark brown. I dye all these things for our brown girl, because they're all what we call flesh color - well, white flesh color.

BLAIR: "First Position" was made by former dancer and first-time filmmaker Bess Kargman.

BESS KARGMAN: I wanted to choose kids whose personal stories defied stereotypes, such as not all ballet dancers are white, not all ballet dancers are rich, not all skinny ballerinas are anorexic, and not all stage parents are psycho.

BLAIR: But finding those families was a challenge. There are some 5,000 young people - ages 9 to 19 - who try to make it to the Youth America Grand Prix. And they're spread out around the globe. The Youth America Grand Prix has been approached by filmmakers before. But Kargman was the first to convince them to let her tell their story.

KARGMAN: I told the competition: Here are all the types of people I'm looking for. Go through your registrants and whittle down from 5,000 a couple hundred, and then I'll make calls. And I'll call these people. I'll email these people. I'll show up at their houses.

BLAIR: Kargman went all over the place from Palo Alto, California, to Cali, Colombia. She says it took her and a small crew a year of filming and then another year of editing. She submitted "First Position" to the Toronto International Film Festival. Elizabeth Muskala, one of the directors, was not surprised to learn that Kargman had been a dancer herself.

ELIZABETH MUSKALA: She took such great care of the subject matter, and the dancers trusted her. And I think you see the love of dance.

BLAIR: And the pain of dance.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: People always think that football players and lacrosse players, soccer players are the people getting injured, but, I mean, ballet dancers get injured every day and still have to work through it.

BLAIR: Kargman gives us a whole section on the dancers' battered feet and their unnaturally stretched limbs.



BLAIR: We meet their teachers, like Viktor Kabaniaev, a devoted, exacting Russian.


VIKTOR KABANIAEV: You're in ballet costume, young man. Can you pull up and take your stomach in? Squeeze your breakfast.

KARGMAN: I mean, you can't cast these people.

BLAIR: Filmmaker Bess Kargman.

KARGMAN: They just exist in real life. And as a filmmaker, you feel very lucky when they come into yours.

BLAIR: But luck can only get you so far. For this first-time filmmaker and these young dancers, perseverance and hard work pay off in this new documentary. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.



You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.