First PositionDocumentary about YAGP 2010 by Bess Kargman
Posted 08 October 2011 - 12:10 AM
Kargmann studied ballet for over a decade, according to the Boston Herald at the Boston Ballet School, but as she said in an interview, "I danced my entire childhood but was spared from all of the sticker shock because I was little. Some tutus cost $2,000 and you wear them twice. It’s really, really shocking how expensive ballet can be." She was at the screening and spoke and answered questions at the end for a good 30 minutes.
Kargmann said she gave up ballet and later played college hockey -- wheee!. (She must have been very tough or very fast or both, because she is pretty tiny.) Bored with her post-graduation job -- I'm not sure if I heard this correctly, but I think she said that -- she saw a gaggle of ballet students on the street and knew that this was the film she had to make. She noticed one girl in particular, and I think it was YAGP who gave her 100 photos, from which she recognized Miko Fogarty, who would be one of the six main dancers on whom the film focuses. She said she had a lot of competition from other filmmakers who also wanted to use YAGP as the center of their projects, and it was especially tough, since she didn't have a resume. However, she said that she "talked the talk" and made it clear to the YAGP folks that she didn't want to make a reality show out of it or even focus on the winners: she wanted to tell more complex stories. YAGP has a page on its site that has links to a number of reviews, the trailer, etc., so they must be pleased.
It was important to her that the group was not just racially diverse but economically diverse as well, and she wanted at least one dancer who led a relatively normal life -- in public high school, not home-schooled or away to boarding school -- and she wanted to show that dancers don't all starve themselves or live off of caffeine and cigarettes. There are two wonderful scenes with Joan Sebastian Zamora, the first with his roommate in Queens, who cooks what looks like a mean and tasty stew, although he says they pretty much eat only that, and then when he visits home in Cali, Colombia for the first time in a year, his mom makes an enormous pot of chicken stew that is cooked on top of a grill and looks mouth-watering. The director also chose dancers from different age ranges and points in their career, with the older dancers looking for scholarships or contracts as much as prizes.
Kargmann noted that the kids were quite shy -- they mentioned being able to say things with their bodies that they couldn't verbally -- and she shut off the cameras and went to dinner with the kids and her cameraman to get to know them better and put them at ease. The strategy worked, because you'd never know it from the resulting film.
Kargmann did a lot of the filming herself at first, but then hired a cameraman (Nick Higgins) whom she called a great cinematographer, and she took many photos as well; for the final week she added cameras for a total of six, so that she could get shots from every angle. She called veteran editor Kate Amend on someone's recommendation, and Amend said that she could recommend a lot of people, but that she might be interested herself. (Amend has edited two other films at this year's VIFF, but the MC didn't mention which other two.) Kargmann was very grateful to Amend for the amount she learned. The director is smart as a whip, extremely engaging, high-energy, and verbal, and I was very disappointed when the Q&A ended. However, she did say the magic words, "When the DVD comes out", and this is one I'll order the moment it is announced.
The footage at home and in the studio, in class and preparing for the competition, is fascinating, and the teachers are some of the best characters in the movie, especially Denys Ganio, who teaches Aran Bell, Viktor Kabaniaev, who teaches Miko and Jules Fogarty, and, too briefly, a man whose name I didn't catch who coached Joan Sebastian Zamora in NYC; I thought he said he danced with ABT. (Zamora is listed on the YAGP site as coming from the Rock School.)
Race comes up several times in the film, and no one's pulling any punches. Zamora says that his idol is Carlos Acosta, because he was the first black principal at the Royal Ballet, and that he probably thinks of himself as black because he's from Colombia. His skin is no darker than most of the people with whom I grew up whose ancestry was from Sicily, so I think that says a lot. For the other two times, the subject is Michaela DePrince. The first time we see her mother, an older Jewish woman with a broad NY metro accent, she is dying straps and tutu panties brown and using a marker to darken the flesh-tone center "V" of a tutu, because commercially available "flesh-toned" is for white dancers. DePrince later lists all of the attributes that black dancers are supposed to have -- ex: bad feet, no extension -- and she's living proof that these are ridiculous assertions, because if anything, she has too much extension. When her mother says that people come up to her to tell her why her daughter can't be a ballet dancer, she asks, somewhat rhetorically whether they think their comments affect her less because her daughter is adopted or whether they're really that crass. Kargmann and Amend let people make the points clearly and move on, the touch of masterful editing, because you don't forget it. I'm interested to see what will be in the bonus material. (Kargmann said if she used all of the footage she'd have a four-hour, rather than a 1.5-hour movie.)
The parents are a mixed bunch: those who moved houses and businesses to be closer to their kids training, a military father who chose to go to Kuwait so that his family could stay within two hours of Rome for his son to continue training rather than move the whole family to a place where there was none, parents who are supportive without being overwhelming to not so much, parents who really aren't sure what hit them, and parents who understand that this is their kid's best chance to earn a decent living, which in itself is a frightening thought. Like with figure skaters, there's a substantial financial investment and sacrifice, and the ones who softly remind their child of this can pull the guilt-strings just as skillfully -- after one such instance, the woman behind me said incredulously, "No pressure there..." and many others gasped -- as the ones who are in their kid's face(s).
As far as the dancing goes, the two that most impressed me were 11-year-old Aran Bell and 16-year-old Joan Sebastian Zamora. Unfortunately the "poster" photo for Zamora is far more extreme than anything he showed in training and competition, where he was quite elegant and controlled, but virile at the same time, great attributes for a danseur noble. The film opens with Bell, who looks like a young Dennis Christopher and is quite goofy and young, showing off his skateboard and unicycle and toy trucks and gun -- there's a great scene of him in Central Park zipping along on his skateboard, until he stops in awe of a cyclist who bounces his bike up a large, craggy rock formation -- which didn't prepare me for how elegant and un-show-offy he was. He also had a very sweet friendship with Gaya Bommer-Yemeni, whose mother is a modern/contemporary choreographer in Israel, which is quite clear from her choreography for her daughter. Bommer-Yemeni is quite a character and has stage presence that you can't buy. (Kargmann, answering a question from the audience, thinks that she will end up in modern or contemporary, not ballet.)
Aside from Rebecca Houseknecht, who shows less of this, whatever their good attributes, like solid cores, nice feet, and presence, the girls are being trained to ridiculous extensions by highly prestigious teachers and schools, and it was hard to watch.
The cinematographer captured so many great reactions from the dancers, the coaches, the teachers, the parents, and, surprisingly the judges: it was amazing to see among a row of judges the look of joy and wonder on some of their faces as they are impressed and moved by a young dancer. That alone was worth the price of admission.
There is a lot of humor in this film, and lots of laughs from the audience. But be warned: if you see it where there are many non-ballet people (doers, watchers, and parents), be prepared for audience reactions that would make you think you were at a horror flick, as dancers show their torture devices, their wrecked feet, and their various ways of contorting themselves well beyond 180 degrees.
At 90 minutes, I hope takes off like "Spellbound" and "Mad Hot Ballrom" and gets aired on TV.
Edited to add: the film will play at New York's Documentary Festival on Saturday, 5 November at 1:15pm at NYU.
On Thursday the "First Position Team" announced that Sundance Selects has acquired the North American rights to the film:
Posted 10 October 2011 - 09:16 PM
On Thursday the "First Position Team" announced that Sundance Selects has acquired the North American rights to the film:
Congratulations to all concerned in the making and subsequent success of this film. There are some noted similarities in Ms. Kargmann's and my background that I'd like to explore with her sometime. However, my main concern at this critical point in time of my own documentary is how "First Position" was financed. Were there any questions (and/or answers) about that during the Q&A?
Posted 10 October 2011 - 11:35 PM
Posted 11 October 2011 - 07:05 AM
Posted 04 March 2012 - 06:10 PM
Thanks, Helene. I really wanted to see this. I saw Arun on the Guggenheim series and was amazed by him.
I saw Aran Bell dance a variation from Don Quixote and "La Chauve Souris" (Roland Petit) in a Youth America Grand Prix in Tampa this past January. He was amazing. So much stage presence. At such a young age he commands the stage. If he continues along these lines he has a great career ahead of him!!!
Posted 25 April 2012 - 04:29 PM
[size=5]Manhattan Movement & Arts Center,
in association with sundance SELECTS presents
A film by Director Bess Kargman
Executive Producer Rose Caiola[/size]
[size=5]Friday, May 4, 2012[/size]
Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, in association with sundance SELECTS, presents the opening screening of First Position on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 6:45pm at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Theater at Lincoln Center, 144 West 65th Street (between Amsterdam and Broadway), NYC. Tickets are $13 ($9 for Seniors/Students/Children; $8 for Members) and are available for purchase at http://www.filmlinc....irst-position1. First Position is distributed nationally by IFC Films.
Follow in the inspirational footsteps of six talented ballet dancers (ages nine to nineteen) as they struggle to maintain form in the face of injury and personal sacrifice on their way to one of the most prestigious youth ballet competitions in the world. First Position is a feature length documentary about a love of dance and a drive to succeed that trumps money, politics and even war.
With unprecedented (and exclusive) access to the Youth America Grand Prix, the largest competition that awards full scholarships to top ballet schools, First Position takes audiences on a yearlong journey around the world. At a time when art, music and dance for children are severely under-funded, the film reveals the struggles and success, the pain and extraordinary beauty of an art form so many children across the globe are determined to dedicate their lives to...despite the odds.
First Position had its World Premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival and was named the audience choice's first runner up for Best Documentary. It also won the Jury Prize at the San Francisco Documentary Festival and the audience award at DOCNYC.
With a love of ballet since childhood, Rose Caiola is the Founder and Executive Artistic Director of the Manhattan Movement and Arts Center (MMAC). MMAC is an 18,000 sq. ft. performing arts center that houses a 199 seat Off Broadway theater venue, as well as providing all genres of dance instruction including her own not-for-profit pre-professional ballet school, the Manhattan Youth Ballet. Caiola is currently a producer of Godspell on Broadway at the Circle in the Square Theater and the co-author and producer of the long running Off-Broadway musical Freckleface Strawberry, which will soon begin a national tour and can be licensed through MTI.
Caiola's goal through all her projects has been to provide equal educational, cultural and artistic opportunities for inner city youth. She is a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and is a member of The Broadway League of Theatres and Producers, and the Screen Actors Guild.
Director / Producer / Editor
Bess Kargman has produced timely, socially and politically relevant stories for numerous media outlets including National Public Radio, The Washington Post and NBC Olympics. She holds degrees from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and Amherst College. Long before entering the world of film and radio, Kargman trained at Boston Ballet School (and has the bruised feet to prove it). First Position is her first movie and premiered at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival (where it took People's Choice runner-up for best documentary). When she's not living out of a suitcase, Kargman divides her time between New York and Los Angeles.
About Manhattan Movement & Arts Center
Manhattan Movement & Arts Center was developed by Rose Caiola as the home of the Manhattan Youth Ballet, a graded, pre-professional ballet academy and performance company. Ms. Caiola, a former dancer and actress, founded the academy in the fall of 1994 as Studio Maestro at 48 W. 68th Street, and today serves as the youth ballet's executive artistic director.
The school is modeled after the European academies. The Manhattan Youth Ballet has acquired a reputation for excellent teaching in an intimate and individually supportive environment. The school's graduates have danced professionally with American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Nederlands Dans Theater, Ballet de España, San Francisco Ballet and Complexions.
As the ballet academy grew, the search for a larger space inspired in Ms. Caiola a highly personal vision of a studio and theater complex that would encompass all aspects of dance education and performance.
mmac opened its doors in June 2008, occupying a dramatic bi-level space within The Element, a luxury high-rise condominium. In addition to the Manhattan Youth Ballet, mmac's studios and theater host daily adult dance and fitness classes, the mmac Kids program, summer intensive programs, as well as an array of performances and special events.
For more information about mmac, visit www.manhattanmovement.com.
Posted 26 April 2012 - 11:08 AM
Posted 29 April 2012 - 10:58 AM
Posted 06 May 2012 - 07:05 PM
However, she said that she "talked the talk" and made it clear to the YAGP folks that she didn't want to make a reality show out of it or even focus on the winners: she wanted to tell more complex stories. YAGP has a page on its site that has links to a number of reviews, the trailer, etc., so they must be pleased.
Given the extensive input YAGP had over the content of the film, it would be strange if they were not pleased:
“We’re approached all the time by producers who want to make documentary or reality, and we always ask what they want to portray,” Larissa Saveliev, the organization’s founder and artistic director said, noting that the competition recently rejected a request from Lifetime’s popular “Dance Moms.” “Usually they want to see the fights, the teachers, anorexia. And we’re just not interested to have a film about this.”
Manohla Dargis' review, also in the Times:
Ms. Saveliev’s participation wasn’t obvious to me from watching “First Position” — and it should have been. “First Position” isn’t a sponsored production, which turn some documentaries into veritable advertisements, and it isn’t any less likable as a viewing experience because it was sanctioned by the very organization that coordinates the contest driving these children. Yet by not underscoring Ms. Saveliev’s input, Ms. Kargman obscured crucial information in a story that she otherwise serves well. And it leaves unanswered whether Ms. Saveliev’s involvement accounts for the movie’s aspirational, almost boosterish vibe and why Ms. Kargman didn’t include substantive criticisms of ballet competitions, which are, as it turns out, not universally supported in the dance world.
Children are of course among the most seductive film subjects, inspiring oohs and ahs just by their presence. Wee ones who compete against one another like those in “First Position” — their little lips trembling with effort, small bodies straining against cruel odds — are even more irresistible, which makes the movie something of a slam dunk when it comes to audience love. This partly explains recent competition-oriented documentaries like “Mad Hot Ballroom” (about ballroom dance); “Spellbound” (spelling bee); “Whiz Kids” (science); “Koran by Heart” (memorization); and “Brooklyn Castle” (chess). Given that documentary filmmaking is itself a competitive field, with its makers vying for grants, production money, festival slots, distribution deals, awards and audiences, it’s a subject that is clearly near and dear to the documentarian heart.
Posted 06 May 2012 - 10:26 PM
Posted 07 May 2012 - 03:23 AM
1. The 'advertisement' aspects of the YAGP competition...particularly as the small 'history' narrative near the beginning makes it appear as if YAGP is the first-and-only ballet competition on this earth. For example, there is no mention of long-established scholarship-giving events like Prix de Lausanne. (!) The film also hints that the competitions route may be the only way to a career in ballet, which is not true.
2. The almost-mocking (not to say "stereotyping") portrayal of the lone WASP female dancer, focusing on her privileged Washington-suburban lifestyle, replete with pink 'princessy' acoutrements. The film caps this young lady's story by noting that she failed to earn a prize and a scholarship at the NYC finals. Gee, how dramatically convenient! (During the post-credit updates, we are told that she eventually was called by the Washington Ballet and offered a corps job...not quite true; she was offered a spot in the WB Studio Company for 2010/2011 but isn't on the WBSC roster anymore.)
Incidentally, it was a joy to have seen one of the subject dancers, Michaela DePrince, performing with the ABT Studio Company at PACE University on Friday evening. She was a standout in Susan Jaffe's modern work, as well as in the reconstruction of Antony Tudor's 1938 Soiree Musicale, where she stole the show (IMO) in the pas de deux 'Tirolese' with Alex Kramer.
Posted 07 May 2012 - 06:23 AM
p.s.s. - Amazingly, Aran Bell returned to YAGP the year after the film was made and won the top prize of the next division, the Junior Grand Prix! So he won the divisional top prizes three years in a row...a 'three-peat'! I did not see his name among the winners of the most recent YAGP (April 2012), so am guessing that he's taken a year off from competing. [size=2]Mr. Blake Kessler of Orlando won the Jr Gnd-Prix this year & Mariinsky Apprentice Kim Kimin won the Sr Grand-Prix.[/size]
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