FIRST POSITION directed by Bess Kargman. A Mongrel Media release. 90 minutes. Opens Friday (July 20). For venues and times, see Movies.
Take a look at any first-rate ballet company and you'll be hard pressed to find a black female dancer. Michaela DePrince, one of six subjects in the excellent ballet documentary First Position, can pretty much count them on one hand.
"There's Misty Copeland in the American Ballet Theatre, but she's a bit lighter-skinned," says DePrince, sitting on a sofa with director Bess Kargman before the film's world premiere at TIFF. "And there's Lauren Anderson at the Houston Ballet. In Canada I know of one girl, but she's half German."
In the film, DePrince and five others compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, an annual contest that can launch young careers, offering jobs with companies and scholarships at prestigious and expensive training schools.
DePrince's story is easily one of the most engaging. Born in Sierra Leone, she was placed in an orphanage after her parents were killed by rebels. At school, she watched as her teacher was murdered. Eventually, she was adopted by a family in the American Midwest, and that's when her love of ballet began. It's pretty much become her entire life, and she's determined to continue to break through the race barrier.
"Because I'm black, people think I'm not capable of being delicate, only athletic," she says. "I want to show that black people can dance ballet as well as white people. Recently, two little black girls saw me perform and afterwards told me they didn't know that black dancers could do ballet, because they'd never seen it before."
Kargman got the idea for the documentary a few years ago, when she chanced upon a group of a 100 young dancers outside a theatre in Manhattan. It turned out to be the Youth America Grand Prix.
"I snuck in without a ticket, and onstage walked this little mini professional ballerina, who was 11. She was the most beautiful dancer I'd ever seen at that age. I watched her dance, then I stood up and walked out and said to myself, ‘That's my movie.'"
Her own childhood ballet training helped her gain the trust of her subjects and their parents.
"I could say to someone, ‘Oh my god, your turnout has totally changed!' We could talk shop, which helped in bonding. They knew I had their best interest in mind."
Kargman also wanted to challenge a lot of stereotypes about the ballet world.
"I wanted to show dancers who are rail thin but not anorexic," she says. "I wanted to show male dancers who are extremely passionate about ballet and not gay."
And, of course, DePrince's experiences ensure real diversity.
"My hope for Michaela is that she becomes the black dancer in the world everyone talks about. I want them to say, ‘She was one of the first.'"
She turns to face the talented teenager.
"I think you can do so much to diversify ballet. You'd better make it, because I'm rooting for you."