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Aspiring talent takes bows in ‘First Position’

“First Position” follows several dancers including MichaelDePrince (left).

“First Position” follows several dancers, including Michaela DePrince (left).

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Sundance Selects presents a film directed by Bess Kargman. No MPAA rating. Running time: 94 minutes. Opening Friday at Landmark Century.

Updated: June 28, 2012 12:52PM

The judges who appear briefly in Bess Kargman’s deeply moving documentary, “First Position,” are engaged in making career-defining decisions about hundreds of aspiring dancers, ages 8 through 19, who compete for much-coveted scholarships and jobs in the annual Youth America Grand Prix. For this contest, a sort of Olympics of classical ballet, they come prepared with a list of essential assets necessary for a ballet career.

The requirements: a beautiful body; excellent training; a visible passion to dance; a strong personality, and that most elusive of all, “the it factor.” Also helpful: supportive parents able to make long-term geographic and financial sacrifices; insightful coaches; an ability to harness nerves and overcome injuries, and a resilient ego that can deal with disappointment and stress.

Kargman’s straightforward but revealingly sharp-eyed documentary foces on the challenges facing six of the competitors in varying age brackets and from the United States and abroad. It follows them as they move through their rigorous training, perform in the semifinals and then go on to dance in the high-stakes finals in New York.

While no one would mistake “First Position” for a work of genius comparable to Wim Wenders’ recent “Pina,” or, at the other end of the spectrum, a vampire-like melodrama like Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” this winner of multiple film festival prizes is an intensely insightful and realistic look at what is involved in trying to forge a ballet career. (Many dancers, it should be noted, completely sidestep competitions like the Grand Prix and still find success.)

One thing is given: Dance is an art form that demands grueling work and intense discipline from an exceptionally young age. Dancers are, by their very nature, a different breed, and those young artists seen here are already winningly individualistic. It is easy to fall in love with each of them for reasons well beyond their talent and grit.

Joan Sebastian Zamora is an impossibly handsome, dark-eyed 16-year-old boy of immense maturity and inner calm, with all the makings of a “danseur noble.” He has moved to New York to study ballet, leaving behind his proud, loving but financially strapped family in Cali, Colombia. You feel the pressure on him to succeed, but his mix of playfulness and persistence are captured in lovely moments that find him dancing on a subway platform during his commute from his Queens apartment and reveling in a family homecoming.

Michaela DePrince, 14, was born in Sierra Leone amid all the horrors of the civil war there, but luckily, she and her sister were adopted by an older, totally devoted couple from New Jersey. Michaela is driven, but she also knows the odds are stacked against her because black dancers have an exceptionally hard time in the ballet world, and a pigmentation problem on her neck is impossible to camouflage. Nevertheless, she is a powerhouse dancer, and her determination to succeed is thrilling to watch. Fair or not, Michaela’s story makes the efforts of Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, a traditionally pretty blond with beautiful legs and a pink “Princess” plaque pinned to her bedroom door, seem less compelling. Yet her self-awareness and her genuine struggle with nerves keep you watching.

Miko Fogarty, 12, and her altogether precious brother, Jules, 10, come from a well-to-do family based in California, and they share a Japanese stage mother from hell and a well-balanced English dad. Miko is a tiny, charismatic empress made for dance. Jules (my pint-sized hero) puts up with the ballet regimen for just so long. Then he calls it quits — a decision I wanted to applaud.

Then there are Aran Bell, 11, a prodigiously gifted but stoic boy with an amazing work ethic (he is the child of an American military family based in Europe), and Gaya Bommer Yemini, 11, the tiny Israeli beauty whose “modern ballet” performance in a piece called “Wild Horses” is a knockout. Aran and Gaya, exceptional dancers both, bond in the most beguiling example of puppy love imaginable.

A brief epilogue captures the dancers’ post-competition fortunes. You can only cheer for all of them.

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