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A filmmaker breaks down ballet stereotypes

Documentary filmmaker Bess Kargman followed the rigorous world of ballet competition for her new documentary 'First Position.'

By Marilyn JonesCorrespondent / May 2, 2012

Like many twenty-somethings, Bess Kargman had no idea what to do with her life when she graduated from college.

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Now, eight years later, she has no doubts about her life’s calling: Her documentary film, “First Position,” which she directed, produced, and co-edited, opens this month. Its story follows six young ballet dancers as they vie for a place in the Youth American Grand Prix ballet competition.

The first-time filmmaker chose the dancers featured in the film not only for their talent, but because each one defied a different stereotype about the ballet world. She wanted to show that not all ballet dancers are white, not all ballet dancers are rich, not all skinny ballerinas are anorexic, not all male dancers are gay, and not all stage parents are overbearing.

The opportunity she had to change common preconceptions “was exhilarating,” Ms. Kargman says.

She also felt deeply how important it was for this story to show the rigorous difficulties these young people go through. In the annual international event, more than 5,000 entrants from 32 countries vie for scholarships. The competition includes several rigorous rounds held in cities around the world, culminating in a weeklong finals in New York. The scholarships give students the entrée they need into elite dance schools attached to dance companies around the world, from the San Francisco Ballet to Britain’s Royal Ballet to Jacob’s Pillow in rural western Massachusetts.

The scholarships awarded in this competition can change a young dancer’s life. Since many of the most prestigious ballet schools are often boarding schools, tuition and living expenses can be enormous. Frequently a young dancer’s whole family will decide to move with them, a massive expense that many families can’t afford. Winning a scholarship can make the difference between a young dancer making it as a professional or giving up his or her dreams – especially in these difficult economic times.

Kargman’s own life is a model of persistence in pursuing one’s passion. After graduating with a degree in fine arts from Amherst College in central Massachusetts, she worked at odd jobs, took a night class in writing, and even earned a real estate license. She later enrolled at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism (she says her experience there shaped her as a storyteller).

While in school, she landed an internship at National Public Radio’s business program “Marketplace,” where she learned how to produce a story concisely.  In her last class before graduation at Columbia, Kargman found herself immersed in a documentary project on the juvenile justice system. She became emotionally affected by the story.

Her mentor, HBO documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert, made a comment about her work that would haunt Kargman: “You overpromised and under-delivered,” he told her.

“He was right,” Kargman now says. “But since then, I’ve done everything within my power to prevent that from happening again.”

Still unsure of a career path after graduating in 2008, Kargman was walking in New York when she spotted huge banners for the Youth America Grand Prix ballet finals.

Having spent much of her childhood training at Boston Ballet School, she was curious – the competition hadn’t existed during the years she had worn out slippers as a student dancer. Sneaking in past the security guards to the sold-out performance, she slipped into the free last seat in the house.


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