Bess Kargman's first feature documentary, First Position, follows six young ballet dancers and their families as they train, dream and sacrifice to compete in the Youth America Grand Prix for scholarships to the world's top ballet schools. The film's characters (ages 9 to 19) represent highly diverse backgrounds, yet embody the heartfelt emotion of ballet itself as an expression of the human body's triumph against the odds--especially today, when art programs for children are so severely underfunded. For the families in the film, there is nothing more important than a child's self-expression despite the social, physical and financial costs--despite being bullied at school, sustaining torn ligaments and wearing homemade tutus. First Position does not show the darker side of the story--of pageant parents, lost childhoods and irreparable physical injuries--but instead chooses to focus on the why of ballet. It asks us to imagine loving something that much.
The film has performed exceptionally well for a first-time feature. It was named the Audience Choice Award First Runner Up for Best Documentary at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and won the Jury Prize at the San Francisco Documentary Festival along with the Audience Award at DOCNYC. In May, First Position will receive a theatrical release. Watching the film, you will likely yearn to see more of the children dancing, but perhaps that is the point. There might not be a better promotion for ballet out there today.
Documentary recently sat down with filmmaker Bess Kargman to learn more about the context behind the film, which started in 2009 after she noticed a group of young dancers outside of New York's Skirball Center and was so inspired that she quit her job to focus on First Position.
Documentary: You mentioned in earlier interviews that you wanted to show the "true cost of ballet." Can you tell us more about how you think that theme plays out in the film?
Beth Kargman: One thing I never realized is how creative, artistic and resourceful a lot of dance parents have had to be because of how expensive ballet is. One mother in the film taught herself to design tutus from scratch in order to save $2,000 every time her daughter needed a new costume; this saves her $10,000-$15,000 a year. Some kids put their pointe shoes in the freezer with the hope that they won't break down as quickly; one pair of pointe shoes costs $80. And dance training is extremely expensive--some ballet boarding schools cost as much as college. That's why for some competitors winning a scholarship can mean the difference between making it as a dancer or relinquishing a dream.
D: What is it about ballet that inspires such dedication and passion despite the costs?
BK: The young dancers in this film have a healthy addiction to this art form. They don't do it for fame, and they definitely don't do it for riches. The joy of performing on stage is what propels them, which is why I think so many parents are willing to spend the money on something that makes their son or daughter truly happy.
D: I know you were a dancer as a child. Did making this film alter your opinion on whether or not young children should pursue professional ballet?
BK: I found the dedication and determination of these kids extremely inspiring. I definitely didn't know what I wanted to be when I "grew up" as a 5-year-old. My advice to people thinking about becoming a professional dancer is that it must be the only thing you want to do, otherwise don't do it. As one of the young dancers says in the film, "You practice so hard for only two minutes on stage...nobody sees all the hard work you put into it." You have to be OK with that to make it as a dancer. Gratification must come from within, from doing the same thing every day and watching yourself improve. Your teachers are there to give you corrections, not shower you with praise. It takes an extreme amount of maturity and confidence to make it as a dancer because you have to be OK with that.
D: How did you address the topic of losing one's childhood to the sole dedication to ballet?
BK: It was a question I asked the kids over and over again because I knoew their responses would challenge preconceived notions about the ballet world. I found it fascinating to hear a 12-year-old explain, "There are people who say that I've missed out on childhood, but I think I've had the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet thus far." This comes from a girl who does online schooling in order to spend six hours a day training every day of the week, and hasn't attended a birthday party in two years.
D: What did this film teach you about documentary?
BK: This is my first film and I think I have learned more over the past two years than in any other two-year period of my life. While studying at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, I had a number of extremely influential teachers, including the HBO documentary film duo Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neil. They taught me that access is everything, and this was especially the case with my film. They also ingrained in me a love of vérité. That’s why, when I set out to make this film, I knew that I didn’t want to use a narrator and I never wanted my voice to be heard asking a question. Little did I know that kids don’t ever speak in complete sentences. Let’s just say it was a big learning experience for all parties involved.
I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to have assembled such an experienced team that didn't have a problem taking orders from a first-time director [The crew includes Nick Higgins, Kate Amend, Eric Thomas and Chris Hajian].
I think one reason they took me seriously is because even if I had never shot a feature-length documentary before, I know how to shoot dance. The extremities are hugely important in ballet-- nicely pointed feet, graceful hands, long neck, etc.--and cutting off these features makes for an extremely unsatisfying viewing experience. Close-ups are important to pepper in sporadically, but that mid-shot that cuts off the dancers at the knees and elbows is pretty useless.
D: Why did you end the film with Joan Sebastian, the young man who becomes the first person from Colombia to enter The Royal Ballet school?
BK: There are a lot of challenges when setting out to do a competition documentary. For example, if I solely relied on outcome--i.e. "winners and losers"--and thus tried to cast the movie according to who I thought would win, I would be risking the entire project on factors I have no control over. I was determined to find kids whose personal stories were so unique that even if the last five minutes of the film didn't turn out as planned, at least the first 85 minutes would be thrilling, moving, humorous and surprising. I also selected kids who had that special intangible something on stage that even non-ballet lovers can be moved by. I chose to end the film with Joan Sebastian because he was also ending a chapter in his life and beginning a new one. Showing him at the end made the film feel more complete.
First Position opens in theaters May 4 through Sundance Selects.
Belinda Baldwin teaches a graduate-level marketing course at Southern Methodist University and writes on the topic of media, popular culture and social change for a variety of magazines and journals including the Harvard Book Review, The Advocate, Documentary and MovieMaker. She holds a PhD from USC in Cinema-TV.