'First Position' follows young ballet performers

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Bess Kargman is a 30-year-old Columbia Journalism School graduate with a passion for storytelling and a hunger for filmmaking.

In 2009, she was walking in lower Manhattan when she noticed banners advertising the finals for the Youth America Grand Prix, an annual ballet competition where dancers ages 9 to 19 from across the globe vie for job contracts and scholarships with some of the industry's top companies and schools.

A former dancer herself, Ms. Kargman sneaked into the venue to watch. On stage stepped "the most incredible baby itty bitty ballerina I'd ever seen," she said. "I stood back up, I walked out and said, 'This has to become my first film, and I don't know who that girl is, but she must be in it.' "

The artist was Miko Fogarty, an adolescent whose dance studies have taken her to schools and contests around the world. Fast forward a couple of years, and she is one of six pre-professional dancers representing a cross-section of ages, genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds spotlighted in Ms. Kargman's documentary debut, "First Position," which follows these up-and-coming performers' preparations for the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix finals. It opens Friday at Pittsburgh Filmmakers' Harris Theater.

"There are amazing dance documentaries out there, but the majority of them really only focus on the dancers dancing," Ms. Kargman said. "I wanted these characters to be three-dimensional. What do they do when they get home? What are their relationships like? What do they eat? What's their schooling situation like?"

In many ways, her path to producing the film mirrored the ups and downs the dancers faced on their road to the competition. First, Ms. Kargman had to go up against other production companies -- many with greater bodies of work to their names -- for exclusive rights to film the competition.

"What won them over, I have no doubt, is because of my dance background," she said. She was a devoted student growing up, including a stint at Boston Ballet School. "They loved the fact that I had a very specific vision of how I wanted the film to be shot."

Next came the challenge of casting characters with charisma -- both on the dance floor and at home.

"You can't try and choose winners. You are setting yourself up for complete failure if you just try and choose winners," she said. "But if you try and choose people who have such incredible personal stories then you can still make for a really strong film without relying on the results."

The competition provided her a list of competitors divvied into categories, such as African-Americans, jocks and siblings. This information, combined with Ms. Kargman's journalism experience, gave her leads to begin calling and visiting studios, researching dancers and seeking home videos.

Her six stars hailed from different countries, requiring her to spend a year traveling the world on a limited budget.

"There was no sightseeing. There was no lollygagging. I had to know exactly what I wanted, what my intention was for shooting that day," she said.

She also struggled at first to get the young dancers to be candid on camera. "Young dancers are inherently shy, a majority of them. ... A couple months into shooting, my camera man joked that I'd have to recast the entire film because we were really struggling with getting them to open up. But we turned the cameras off, and we earned their trust."

A year of editing hundreds of hours of footage down to just under 100 minutes followed. At every turn, the possibility of failure loomed.

"There were continual voices from well-intentioned advice givers not to get my hopes up about ever finishing this film or getting into theaters. 'Ballet is very niche, it's very feminine.' My audience is going to be extremely limited, and without choosing just one age division, where the kids are going head to head, I'm not going to have a dramatic film,' " she said were some of the warnings she regularly heard.

"I understood and was well aware of the risks," she said. In fact, when the production company Ms. Kargman was working for turned down her pitch to pursue this film, she left to make it on her own. "I couldn't not try and make this film. I thought that the pain of regret would be far greater than the pain of failure."

So far, the risk has proven to be a fruitful one. Since its release last year, the documentary has been screened internationally and has garnered awards from the Portland International Film Festival and the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, among other festivals.

"Someone wrote on the film's Facebook wall, which is very active, he wrote, 'I'm the guy who would rather poke his eyes out than go see a live ballet performance, and I love this film from start to finish,' " Ms. Kargman said. "You really don't have to be a dance fanatic to be extremely moved and inspired."


Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com.


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