By James O’Barr
Viewing First Position, Bess Kargman’s lovely inside look at the lives of aspiring young ballet artists (and the final film of the Depot Docs 2012-2013 season, showing Friday, June 14, at the Philiptown Depot Theatre), I couldn’t stop thinking of a story I’d heard recently, honoring the passing of the great New York City Ballet prima ballerina, Maria Tallchief. A young theatrical agent was invited to meet Tallchief after a performance, and when the regal beauty appeared and offered her hand to the thoroughly abashed young man, all he could think of to say was, “You’re very light on your feet.”
Tallchief, who started formal ballet lessons at the age of 3 and who was the first Native American (Osage) to hold the rank of prima ballerina, must surely be one of Kargman’s heroes. Kargman herself was a dancer from an early age, until she “retired” at age 14 to play ice hockey in high school, and said she wanted to make a movie — her first film, “to show how diverse the ballet world is in terms of socio-economic status, race, and geography … I wanted to shatter stereotypes.” In addition, as someone who’d lived the young dancer’s life, she wanted to show the whole of it — not just the few moments onstage, but the blood, sweat and tears required to get there, as well as the ordinary and the mundane experiences that constitute even the most extraordinary and unconventional lives.
She found the perfect vehicle for her ambition one day during a lunch break while walking in lower Manhattan, when she stumbled upon a crowd of young ballet dancers waiting to compete in the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix, a worldwide competition held annually that awards scholarships for leading ballet schools to young dancers ages 9 to 19 and affords them an opportunity to be seen in a unique showcase and, in the case of the older students, perhaps offered a company contract. The Skirball Center for the Performing Arts at New York University was sold out, but Kargman got herself in, sat in the back and watched a very small, very young dancer give a short performance “of such maturity, grace, composure, technique and artistry,” that, by the time she walked out of the theatre to return to work, she knew she’d found her subject.
That little ballerina, Miko Fogarty, who was 11 at the time, became one of seven young dancers Kargman followed over the course of a year as they competed in the regional and final rounds of the Youth America Grand Prix. The others included Miko’s brother, Jules, age 10; Joan Sebastian Zamora, 16; Aran Bell, 11; Michaela De Prince, 14; Rebecca Houseknecht, 17; and Gaya Yemini, 11. While the film uses what has become a common template for documentaries (and for reality TV), in which the theme or subject is explored by following a select set of participants, Kargman’s determination to avoid stereotypes and to fully engage her audience with what could seem to be an impossibly exotic world, she has managed to take the format to an inspired level. In a New York Times interview, Kargman said, “I chose the dancers as if I was casting a scripted film … I knew if I was very strategic, I could surprise the audience.”
First Position, which won the Jury Prize at the San Francisco Doc Festival and the audience award for Best Documentary at the Portland International Film Festival, where Kargman was named Best New Director, does more than surprise. Kargman’s first position, as it were, is love for the dance, and her film takes us to that special place where those rare gifts of raw talent, the right body, innate musicality, natural coordination, the sense of drama and the courage of the performer, and passion, commitment, dedication and perseverance, are forged into sublime art. So doing, it astonishes.
If you, too, want to be astonished, find your way to the Depot Theatre, Garrison’s Landing, June 14, at 7:30 p.m., where you can see First Position and meet Kargman, who will be the special guest for a Q-and-A and reception after the screening. Reservations are recommended, and it is worth getting on the waiting list if necessary. To do either, call the theater at 845-424-3900, or visit philipstowndepottheatre.org.
Images courtesy of Depot Docs