First position in ballet is the one in which you turn your feet out so that the heels touch and the feet try to form a straight line. First position in any competition is everybody’s goal. So it’s no surprise that “First Position” is the name of first-time filmmaker — and Brookline native — Bess Kargman’s new ballet-competition documentary, which opened this past Friday at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge. The film follows seven students, ages 10 to 17, as they strive to reach the 2010 finals of the annual Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, where the prizes for the older winners include ballet-school scholarships and ballet-company contracts.
Kargman knows the territory: She is a former Boston Ballet School student. She quit, she says, when she got to high school. “I loved sports as much as I loved ballet,” she recalls when we meet at the Met Bar & Grill on Newbury Street, “and that was a signal to me that maybe I should do sports, because ballet needs to be your sole passion in order to make it as a dancer. Ballet is so demanding, the hours you put in, the sacrifice. But these young dancers don’t consider it sacrifice. They have the most battered, bruised, bloody feet, and you never hear them complain. Because they consider it part of the job description.”
Kargman, 29, went to Amherst College, where she played women’s ice hockey. Then, she says, “I went to graduate school for journalism at Columbia, and I took a very influential class with Jon Alpert, who does HBO documentaries. He’s very true to this one style, vérité documentaries, there’s no narration. Very small crew, usually it’s just one or two people. He was extremely hard on me, but the way I see it is that he thought I had a lot of potential.”
For her first film, Kargman had her subject, ballet, and her own slant. Most dance documentaries, she says, “focus on rehearsal and stage. I would watch these beautiful works of art and say to myself, ‘Do they go home and eat a cheeseburger?’ I wanted to go home with them and meet their families. I wanted to see what they ate, how much they slept, did they have any hobbies.”
What she didn’t have, at first, was funding. The money, she says, came from “patrons of the arts who cared deeply about what my mission was and were inspired by how driven I was and were willing to take a risk on a first-time filmmaker. They looked at it more as a philanthropic adventure than as an investment. Which was really wonderful.”
Still, with a budget that she describes as “well well well under a million dollars,” Kargman had to cut corners. “The reason I’m sole producer of this film is not because I didn’t want to share the responsibilities,” she points out. “It’s because that was one more salary I would have had to have paid. I didn’t have a field producer, I didn’t have a line producer, I didn’t have a production assistant. I only had the most essential crew. And then whatever else, I had to do it myself.”
The most important thing she did was casting, which she did as if she were casting a narrative feature film. She was looking, she says, for “kids who have this special something that’s innate, that can’t be taught, that can’t be learned, it’s within them. And my guess was, if I spotted that in them, maybe the Grand Prix judges would too. And maybe an audience, also. And not necessarily a dance-loving audience.”
She started out with six: Aran Bell, 11, an American from a Navy family living in Naples, Italy; Miko Fogarty, 12, and her brother Jules, 10, from Palo Alto, Calif.; Michaela DePrince, 14, an orphan from Sierra Leone who was adopted by a Jewish couple in Cherry Hill, N.J.; Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16, a poor boy from Cali, Colombia; and Rebecca Houseknecht, 17, from Odenton, Md.
The idea behind the selection, she says, “was to defy stereotype. Not all ballet dancers are white: Michaela. Not all skinny ballerinas are anorexic: Miko. Not all ballet dancers are rich: Joan. (Also, Joan represents the amount of talent coming out of Latin America these days.) Jocks can be ballet dancers too: Aran. And not all male ballet dancers are gay: Aran and Joan. Not all beautiful, perfect-bodied, very talented girls have it easy: Rebecca. In fact, no one has it easy. To get a job is nearly impossible, even when you look like her and dance like her.”
In the course of the film, all six of Kargman’s kids make it through the regional semifinals and qualify for the finals. But then Jules, who seems less passionate than his sister, decides to quit ballet. He’s replaced in the cast by 11-year-old Gaya Bommer Yemini, from Israel. “I did not cast Gaya,” says Kargman. “I did not know who she was. Aran cast Gaya because he loves hanging around with talented people and they developed this fast friendship. And that unfolded before the camera’s eyes. I didn’t say, ‘Aran, go find someone who is really cute and from Israel and gifted at modern dance.’ But when she showed up, I was like, ‘This is not a problem. This is gold, actually.’ ”
And Kargman wasn’t surprised that so many of her dancers struck gold at the Grand Prix. “I chose people who I thought were really special,” she says, “and it turns out the judges felt that way too. And to be honest, if none of them had done well, I would have waited a year or two, until interesting wonderful things developed in their lives, and that’s how I would have ended the film.”
Boston Ballet second soloist Bo Busby is a Youth America Grand Prix winner himself: He was named best male dancer in the senior division in 2000 and received the competition’s Grand Prix title in 2001, as a result of which he was given a contract for American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company. He makes the point that it’s not just what you do on stage that counts in the competition. “When they come to a certain place for the regionals, they watch classes,” he explains. “In my case it was the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. They came and watched rehearsals, and we did a men’s class, and a partnering class, so they got to see all facets of my dancing.
“They’re looking for somebody who is there and works hard and applies corrections, the normal things you look for in a good dancer,” Busby says. And getting along with other dancers? “That always helps,” he replies with a laugh.
He feels Youth America was a good experience. “There’s an element of ballet that, as [American Ballet Theatre principal dancer] Ángel Corella once famously said, is not a competition; it’s art. But at the same time, if the competition helps get you known and helps people to see you and so your name gets out there, you can more easily acquire a job.”
Kargman, stresses, however, that “First Position” is not primarily about competition. “This film is really about a group of young dancers from all around the world who have a shared devotion to dance. And what brings them together is this competition. I made the film for people who don’t know much about ballet but want to be inspired and surprised. Most people who I talked to say it was a very emotional journey for them. You don’t have to love ballet — if you’re a human being, you see this passion and sacrifice and the family commitment.”