First Position takes as its subject the fierce competition between youngsters, for a scholarship to top-tier international ballet schools.
First-time filmmaker Bess Kargman was searching for a film subject when she stumbled upon New York City's Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), the world's largest student ballet scholarship competition. Open to students of all nationalities from 9 to 19 years old, the YAGP annually awards more than $250,000 in scholarships to leading dance schools worldwide. In New York, Kargman saw a performance by 12 year-old Miko Fogarty (pictured), a Japanese-American dancer from California. She knew at that moment that the competition would provide the framework for her first film and that she would cast the young dancer. When she discovered that Miko had a brother, 10 year-old Jules, and that he also danced, she enlisted both siblings immediately.
“I knew that one way of compensating for the fact I'd never made a feature length film before was to choose a topic that I really understood,” Kargman says over the phone from Los Angeles. “When I was young, ballet played a big role in my life. I lived in a world that was extremely similar to these dancers. I felt like I could make a unique film if I showed their world in a way that was complex and went behind the scenes.
“I also wanted to make a story that surprised audiences. I decided to dismantle and shatter a bunch of stereotypes when I set out to cast the film. Not all ballet dancers are white. Not all ballet dancers are rich. Not all skinny ballerinas are anorexic. Not all male dancers are gay.”
Kargman approached YAGP for permission to film and found herself in her own competition: for access. “I had to convince them to let me do this. There were other production companies vying for exclusive access to film the competition. I think my dance background and youth won them over; they felt that I could tell a story that was true and accurate. Still, I had to write a proposal to win their trust.
“What was really important was that ultimately I had 100 percent control over who was in the film and how the film was constructed. I would not do the film if they wanted final cut.”
Sourcing a list of the dancers through the YACP, Kargman zeroed in on those who defied conventional stereotypes, including African American dancers, male dancers who “were also jocks on the side”, international dancers. Amongst those she interviewed, Kargman found 14 year-old Michaela DePrince, a dancer orphaned during the civil war in Sierra Leone, and Aran Bell (11), the child of a military father based in Italy.
“You can never predict who is going to win but you do have control over how fantastic the kids are both on and off the stage,” Kargman says now. “When I found out that Aran's dad is a military man and super supportive of his son, I thought it defied the 'Billy Elliot' stereotype.”
Kargman filmed semi-finals in the US and also in Italy, where both Aran and Israeli competitor, 11 year-old Gaya Bommer Yemini are based. She travelled to the homes of the dancers and spent considerable time with their parents, including Colombian Joan Sebastian Zamora (16).
The vast majority of First Position was shot chronologically. The one exception, Kargman says, was Michaela's story. “She had such a personal, raw emotional story about her upbringing. It took me so long to get her to open up. In the beginning she would talk about Africa but in a way that was totally unemotional. She was very guarded, not very open to talking about what she had been through. It took me a really long time to earn her trust. One of the final interviews I ever did was after we had basically wrapped the film. She finally opened up and it was really powerful and essential to telling her story… but it took a full year.”
Without sufficient budget to cover all competitors, Kargman drew on her roots in “old-fashioned journalistic reporting” to make her selection of seven. “I went to graduate school for journalism and I applied that to my approach,” she says now. “I did a tonne of research. A lot of meeting and calling people and I asked to watch videos of them dancing. I was very picky with who I chose. The requirements were strict. They had to have a special magic on stage. It's something that can't be taught. It can't be learnt. It's an innate artistry, great talent, strength, maturity, poise. I had to see them dance. I had to meet their parents. In order to make it as a dancer you have to have a support system. It doesn't even need to be a financial support system, which is crucial for a lot of young dancers. But there has to be people rooting for you. The kids first and foremost have this dream, this mission, and then the parents fall in line and help them achieve it.”
First Position opens in Australian cinemas on April 11 through Hopscotch Films.