First Position Dispels Ballet Myths

Written by Mariko Nagashima


A scene from First Position, directed by Bess Kargman.
Photo Credit: Bess Kargman
A Sundance Selects Release
“I think I’ve had the right amount of childhood, and the right amount of ballet, so far,” Miko Fogarty, age 12, says with a shy smile in the documentary First Position. Fogarty is one of six ballet-dancers-in-the-making to be featured in this debut film by director Bess Kargman. The six featured dancers have devoted their childhoods to intensive training, a not uncommon practice in the ballet world, but one the general public often perceives as unhealthy or just downright crazy. First Position, however, is a documentary built on dispelling these stereotypes. It centers on the prestigious ballet competition Youth America Grand Prix, following these six dancers throughout a year of preparation for the finals. In a sort of antithesis to Dance Moms or Black Swan, which have only helped perpetuate the general public’s warped perception of dance, the film shines light on the unique stories of each dancer and honestly portrays the particular blend of devotion, drive, and sacrifice necessary to become a professional ballet dancer. The film has won much acclaim on the festival circuit throughout 2011 and will be opening in select theaters, including Seattle’s Landmark Seven Gables, this Friday, May 25, 2012.
Kargman, who spent her childhood dancing at the Boston Ballet, never planned on making a film about a ballet competition. But on a whim in 2009, after seeing banners advertising the YAGP Finals, Kargman stood in line and nabbed one of the last seats in the house. “Out onstage walked the most beautiful, graceful, mature, strong dancer I’d ever seen for that age. She was 10! I was transfixed. I walked out and said, ‘This is my movie.’” This “itty-bitty baby ballerina,” as Kargman called her in an interview with SeattleDances, turned out to be Miko Fogarty, who Kargman vowed would be part of the film. Next came the hard part, convincing the competition to give a neophyte filmmaker unlimited access. “What won them over was that I had danced in my childhood. And I knew how to shoot ballet. [I knew] not to cut off extremities, to show the hands and the feet, the length of a neck.” This eye for detail is manifest in almost every scene and edit: stunning performance footage is skillfully juxtaposed with moments of the dancers’ day-to-day lives outside the studio.

Joan Sebastian Zamora in FIRST POSITION,
directed by Bess Kargman.
Photo Credit: Bess Kargman
A Sundance Selects Release 
“I had a specific vision of who I wanted to be in this film. Not necessarily what they would look like, but more like what stereotypes I wanted them to defy. I wanted to show that just as not all male ballet dancers are gay, not all female ballet dancers are anorexic. Not all dancers are white, not all ballet dancers come from wealth.” Kargman’s strategic casting was highly successful; the six dancers are as diverse as they are talented. There’s Fogarty and her younger brother Jules Jarvis, whose varied interest levels of commitment to ballet make for some interesting family dynamics. There’s Aran Bell, age 11, whose father is a military doctor based in Italy, and Bell’s sweetheart Gaya Bommer Yemini, also 11, who lives and trains in Israel. There’s Michaela DePrince, a spectacularly dynamic 14-year-old who breaks hearts with her story of being inspired by a photo of a ballerina as an orphan in war torn Sierra Leone. There’s Joan Sebastian Zamora, a 16-year-old Colombian who left his family to train in New Yorkand hopes to later support them as a dancer with the Royal Ballet. And to round out the cast there’s Rebecca Houseknecht, a 17-year-old from Maryland who tries to be as normal a teenager as possible, while still pursuing her dreams of a professional ballet career.

Though the film has its fair share of dramatic tears and almost unnerving shots of children performing astonishing technical feats with a maturity far beyond their years, it is grounded by glimpses of the kids simply being kids. Bommer Yemini’s mother says it best, “when she dances something in her face changes…something in the expression, in the concentration. She becomes an adult when she dances.” This sophistication the dancers embody onstage belies their actual youthfulness, but Kargman counters that with footage of Bell rambunctiously riding his scooter, the siblings playing at the dinner table, and Zamoraspending time with his girlfriend. “What struck me from day one was that the outside world will undoubtedly perceive that these kids have completely given up their childhood, and I wanted to challenge that.” Getting the kids to talk about these issues, and other ballet stereotypes, was another matter in itself though. “They were really shy. Because dancers, their primary mode of expression is speaking with their bodies, not their mouths. So it took a lot of bonding to get them to open up.”

Though Kargman wanted to battle the misconceptions the general public has about ballet, she also wanted to address the negative perception about competitions within the dance world. “I knew going into making this film that competitions have a certain reputation among ballet schools and ballet communities, that [they’re] not appreciated.” Kargman chose to film YAGP “because the competition focuses on scholarships, not on winning as much. I wouldn’t have done the film, if it was just for shiny medals. It has more meaning for kids [this way], and there’s a wonderfully positive outcome as a result to these competitions.” And even though the dancers in the film don’t compete against each other as they’re all in different age divisions, there’s still drama and tension through the realization of just how important this competition is to their careers. The film has you rooting for them from the beginning.

Jules Jarvis Fogarty in First Position, directed by Bess Kargman
Photo Credit: Bess Kargman
A Sundance Selects Release 
Kargman had always admired other documentaries about dance but felt that for the most part, these only showed their subjects in training or performance. “I recall watching them and wondering what do [the dancers] eat? How much sleep do they get? What do their parents think? There were so many documentaries that I wanted to go home with and I wanted this one to take me home with it too.” First Position does just that and, in doing so, shows the “complexities of the dance world,” that most people are unaware of. This is a film that will not only be beloved by dancers for its candid renderings, but will also be enjoyed by people unfamiliar with dance for its inside look at this fascinating world. The film is showing for a limited time in Seattle, so be sure to catch it at the Seven Gables while it’s here. Tickets can be purchased at: http://www.landmarktheatres.com/Market/Seattle/Seattle_Frameset.htm

More information on the film can be found at: http://www.balletdocumentary.com/.