A filmmaker breaks down ballet stereotypes

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

Yaniv Schulman/First Position Films
Bess Kargman (r.) poses with ballerina Miko Fogarty who is featured in her documentary 'First Position'. The documentary follows six gifted ballet students from disparate social, regional, economic, and ethnic backgrounds as they prepare for the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious competition where the world's top dance companies and schools prospect for new talent.

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

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.

Just as she sat down, an 11-year-old “itty-bitty” ballerina took the stage. She was “mature, poised, and inspirational,” recalls Kargman, who had never seen such talent in a girl that young. The idea came quickly: “This is my movie!” She knew she wanted to cast this young dancer in a film about the rigors and rewards of ballet competition.

The odds were stacked against the wannabe documentarian. Ever since the success of the movie “Spellbound,” about the competition between youngsters in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, a seeming plethora of competition documentaries had been made. Would distributors feel the market had been flooded with competition films?

But first, Kargman had to prove to the board members of the Youth American Grand Prix competition why they should open their doors and let in her cameras. Ultimately, her passion for the project, her background as a dancer, and her understanding of the ballet world won them over.

She dug into the work. First, she rewatched her favorite documentaries. She examined the credits, taking notes on who did what that she found particularly strong in the film: who shot it, edited it, corrected the color, and so forth. Then she made cold calls. She needed to build an experienced team, but one who also felt okay that she herself didn’t have filmmaking experience.

For cameraman Nick Higgins, Kargman’s lack of experience wasn’t an issue.

“I’ve worked with many others in the same situation, and it all comes down to passion,” he says. “She had that in spades – and I only had to see the trailer she’d crafted for fundraising to see she had raw talent, too.”

One of her professors at Columbia, Mat O’Neill, knew Kargman had the ability to sniff out good stories and talk her way into interesting situations and conversations. But was she a “deal closer” who could pull a project together?

Now having seen “First Position,” he says Kargman’s first film shows “she has the bulldog tenacity it takes to be a documentary superstar. I’m looking forward to watching her career and her future films – and working for her one day.”

For Kargman, the most exhausting part of the process was finding investors. She began by creating a pitch tape and entering the WestDoc PitchFest competition in Culver City, Calif. Out of the hundreds of pitches, only 10 were selected, including hers.

After she won, Kargman landed her first big investor, someone who had been in the audience. The project grew from there.

Looking back, Kargman concedes that her quest to direct “First Position” might have seemed a little nutty. But she knew she had to be her own boss to tell the story she wanted to tell.

“I knew how I wanted the film to be shot, and how unsatisfying it is to watch dancers who aren’t framed properly by the camera  – especially with respect to the feet and hands, which are crucial in ballet because they help establish long lines made by the body,” she says.

“First Position” premiered in September 2011 at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was named the audience’s choice Best Documentary first runner-up. The film has also won the Jury Prize at the San Francisco Doc Fest and the audience award at DOC NYC. Most recently, “First Position” won Best Documentary at the Portland International Film Festival – and Kargman won Best New Director.

With all these accolades piling up, Kargman says the film’s distributor, Sundance Selects, is increasing the number of theaters in which “First Position” is opening.

“One year ago, I had no idea whether this film would see the light of day,” she says. “Now I pinch myself every day.”

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