First Position

Peering into the fiercely competitive lives of adolescent ballet dancers

Behind the scenes during the filming of First Position.

Bess Kargman’s first glimpse of Youth America Grand Prix was by chance. On a walk through lower Manhattan, an advertising banner drew her into a packed theater just as a talented young dancer took the stage. “I had never seen such poise, grace and strength in a young girl,” says Kargman. “This itty-bitty baby ballerina gave me goose bumps.” That dancer, Miko Fogarty, sparked the idea for Kargman’s documentary First Position, and Fogarty soon became the first YAGP competitor chosen for the film.

An alum of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Kargman used her reporting skills to find subjects who would challenge certain ballet stereotypes. “I knew the ballet world was more complex than psycho stage parents, anorexic girls and gay male dancers,” she says about the way ballet is often portrayed. “I really did ‘cast’ this movie.”

The film covers a year of competition preparation with ballet-obsessed Miko (age 12) and brother Jules Jarvis Fogarty (10), whose heart just isn’t in the ballet

world; Aran Bell (11), who lives in Italy during his father’s military service, and his close friend Gaya Bommer Yemini (11); Michaela DePrince (14), who was adopted from war-torn Sierra Leone; Colombian Joan Sebastian Zamora (16); and American Rebecca Houseknecht (17), who has the ideal classical ballet facility but must overcome nerves in performance.

Kargman pitched her documentary idea to the production company where she was interning. After being turned down, she quit the internship and brought her idea directly to YAGP. Though she had never directed a film and was competing against several other production companies vying for similar stories, YAGP gave her access because she had trained at the Boston Ballet School, and because of her passion for the storyline.

“We felt she would know how to film the dancers so that it was comple- mentary to the artform, and she would understand the true commitment, sacrifice and dedication of all the dancers,parents, teachers, judges and audiences. It was important for us to not focus on the cattiness, interpersonal drama or cutthroat nature of some competitions, and Bess agreed,” says YAGP co-founder Larissa Saveliev.

There’s extensive footage of the students in class and rehearsals. But some of the film’s most memorable moments happen outside the studio, like when Zamora returns to Colombia, and we see him practicing jumps against the vivid colors of a modest courtyard, or when DePrince’s mother constructs and dyes tutus to match her daughter’s brown skin. “These personal stories are so complex,” says Kargman. “I knew a film about winning would fail, and I wanted to craft something that would inspire people, not just dancers.”

First Position enters movie theaters this month, and a DVD will be available in fall 2012, with extras that include outtakes devoted to studio time, teaching segments and performance clips.

For more: balletdocumentary.com DT

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