Director and journalist Bess Kargman was looking for inspiration for her first documentary feature. One day, while walking in Manhattan, she happened upon a dance recital. Being a former dancer herself, she went into the concert hall and was captivated by an enchanting half-Japanese, half-American dancer named Miko, who was not even ten years old, and decided to make a film about the young ballet talent competition, the Young America Grand Prix. This was the inspiration for her directorial debut, First Position, as she told us at a screening of the film at the Vancouver International Film Festival.
First Position follows a year in the lives of a half-dozen young dancers aged 11 to 17 as they prepared to participate in the Grand Prix. This contest, like American Idol does for singers, can make careers. Prizes include not only performance medals, but highly sought-after dance contracts and major scholarships from the likes of the Royal Ballet Theatre, American Ballet Theater, Royal Winnipeg Ballet and virtually all of the world’s most esteemed dance companies. Kargman was given all-access to these dancers and the competition.
We meet 11-year-old Aran, a charming young dance prodigy living on a US army base in Naples and training in Rome. His fellow competitor Gaya is a young Israeli girl whose mother is a little too intent on making them into a ballet supercouple (they are only 11 years old). Fourteen-year-old Michaela was born at the height of the Sierra Leone civil unrest, adopted by a New England Jewish couple, and now fights various bodily injuries as she takes her shot at a dance scholarship, hoping to one day open a dance academy in her war-torn home country. Sixteen-year-old Colombian Joan Sebastien is sponsored by a former ABT dancer, and carries the hopes and dreams of his family in New York City. Privileged Rebecca is the all-American girl who may have the word “princess” in stencils on her bedroom wall, but who is a studious, disciplined dancer, entering the job market at a time when companies are no longer hiring new talent. And then there’s Miko, the Palo Alto tween who has a glowing, natural stage presence and clearly lives to dance, whose mother has also pushed her adorably clumsy younger brother Jules (J.J.) into the field, hoping to raise two dance stars in her family.
Kargman’s compassionate feature marks the confident debut of a new talent. Having trained as a journalist and a dancer, she explained in the post-screening Q&A to a receptive, appreciative audience that her professional training and understanding of the inner workings of the ballet world gave her the tools to truly explore these aspiring dancers’ lives and interpret the challenges they face to her audience. Write about what you know, they say, and the same is true of directing as it is in any art form. We gain insight from intimate moments, such as Michaela’s mother dying the flesh tones in her daughter’s ballet costumes for aesthetic purposes. Why? Because ballet outfits aren’t available in African-American flesh tones. We follow Joan Sebastian to his home in Cali, Colombia, a world away from Manhattan, and realize that without his mentor’s assistance, they would never have afforded the tuition when the average salary is $250 a month in Colombia. Dance was his way out and into the world. And we see how Miko’s and J.J.’s father moved his entire company’s office closer to the best dance studio in order to give his children’s burgeoning careers flight. These little sacrifices, combined with the hours of punishing practice and debilitating injuries, show how resilient and tough the dancers are.
You will not find stories of anorexia or the artfully perverse fantasia of Black Swan here. Even the so-called stage parents and sadistic coaches are empathetic, not monsters. They simply recognize that their young charges will falter, but also can and will continue to do better. These youth live to dance simply because they are happy doing it, and can better express themselves in their physicality than they ever could in words. And that is the mark of a real visual and performance artist. Kargman has already indicated she will be doing a follow-up film in ten years’ time, to chart the development of these youth into hopefully accomplished dancers.
First Position played to rapt audiences at the Vancouver International Film Festival. You can still catch one last screening on Friday, October 14 by buying tickets here. If you miss it, don’t fret, because Kargman announced that the film was very recently granted a distribution deal in North America and will be coming soon to a theatre near you. For more information, check out the film’s active Facebook page and website.