Newcomer Captures Dance Right on Pointe
Issue   |   Mon, 11/12/2012 - 21:22

Stripped of the fame and glory of movie stars or big-shot directors, documentary filmmakers often stand far from the spotlight and let their subjects speak instead. In “First Position,” the debut documentary feature by Bess Kargman ’04, the greatest voices come not from words but from body language. Chronicling seven aspiring ballet dancers as they take center stage in the prestigious ballet competition, Youth America Grand Prix, in hopes of a bright future, “First Position” is as much a testimony of the strength and beauty of ballet as it is that of the talent and perseverance of Kargman, who transitioned from an active dancer and scholar to the creative mind behind one of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries.

The Young Triple-Threat

“First Position,” the title a wordplay on the position that ballet dancers learn in their first class and the race to the top in the competition, represents a world that Kargman has known intimately since age five, when she began ballet training at a local studio in her native Brookline, Mass. Athletics came easily to Kargman, who also grew up playing soccer, tennis and ice hockey, but she was surprised to find herself an underdog in ballet — a challenge she enjoyed until her “early retirement” to pursue the three varsity sports in Concord Academy. Her work ethic was beyond her years: waking up at 5 a.m. for ice hockey practice on the boys’ team (the girls’ team would not become an option until high school) was typical, but that was just the beginning. A full day of school followed, as well as ballet, Hebrew school or tennis, sometimes even all three. Just how hectic was her schedule?

“Sometimes on the weekends I wore my hair in a bun to practice because I didn’t have the time [to undo it] after ballet. Hairpins would be sticking out of my helmet and I looked like an alien on skates,” she said.

Kargman broke from the family tradition in her senior year of high school when she applied early decision to Amherst instead of Harvard.

“I guess you could say that made me the rebel in my family,” she said about not attending Harvard like her grandparents, parents and siblings, “but my family just wanted me to be happy, and I knew Amherst would be a much better fit for me. I didn’t want to learn from TAs, I didn’t want the rigidity of a core curriculum and the campus was perfectly sized.”

According to Kargman, the day she received admission to Amherst was one of the most memorable ones in her life.

“The mailman left the envelope at the wrong door, with none of the other mail. It’s a door we rarely use so the envelope was sitting out there for three days. All of my classmates who were accepted early to their first choices had heard except for me. I spent three days in mourning, certain that I had been rejected, and then the next day my parents showed up at school with the letter. I nearly cried. It was a great day.”

Finding Her Way, at Amherst and Beyond

That great day led to four great years for Kargman. While at Amherst, she took courses in nearly every academic field, ranging from Baroque Art with Professor Nicola Courtright (later her advisor), an independent course she designed with Anthropology and Sociology Professor Ronald Lembo, to a variety of music history and LJST classes. Her intellectual energy even reached beyond the Amherst campus, from Italian at UMass, Music Production and Sound Design at Hampshire College and History of Photography at Smith.

She relished the fact that Amherst fostered autonomy and independence, while creating a great sense of collegiality and partnership. Coming from the intensity of Concord Academy, she enjoyed “how freeing it was to then have a college schedule where you had the time to sit in Frost Library with your friends and debate Socrates, then go to Fresh Side for rolls and then have a little fun.” Her academic life in the Pioneer Valley was only part of her experience: she played on the Women’s Ice Hockey team for two years, then flew to Rome for a semester of art.

Around that time, she began to think more seriously about her career path. That was when questions started flooding in. She knew she wanted to invest in her creativity, but felt clueless as to how. Neither of her internships in the music or fashion industry seemed to be a good match, and the rigidity of corporate hierarchy over those supposedly creative and collaborative fields left her uneasy.

“I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” she said. “I knew I wanted to be creative, and I knew I loved storytelling.”

But what format to use? What profession to pursue? Though having been very determined in school, she graduated with these questions still weighing heavily on her mind.

“You need years to grow,” Kargman said while reminiscing on her post-Amherst life, which proved to be challenging at first.

She moved to New York City with two college friends and in order to pay the bills. She earned her real estate license and began to navigate the sea of New York City properties during the day to free up time for night classes on op-ed writing, where she honed her craft on story-telling. She even spent the next summer planting crops on an organic farm in Mendocino, California. Yet looking back, Kargman found her “lost years” constructive.

“In the first couple of years out of college it is okay to take jobs not necessarily [as] what you want to do for the rest of your life, but [that are] still useful in building your resume and meeting people,” she said. “If you are shell-shocked that you don’t fully know what to do, that’s okay … it took me a while to figure it out.”

Becoming a Soloist

Kargman figured it out after publishing her first op-ed in the Washington Post. She returned to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism where she did a concentration in documentary and new media. The road, however, did not become easier. Recession hit not long after she tucked away her graduation gown, and she found herself working as an unpaid intern at a production company and hoping to secure a job.

She never landed one, but as it turned out, she did not have to. Instead, she left the company and founded her own.

The pitch for “First Position” was the one that prepared her leap of faith. When she walked into Youth American Grand Prix during lunch break one day and saw the young dancers on stage, an idea hit her: she wanted to document the lives of these promising dancers as they strove for the chance to shine. The company, having had her for ten months but clearly not planning to hire anyone, brushed it aside.

“Bess has always said that the people who don’t believe in her are just as important as the people who want her to succeed … because the naysayers ignite a fire in her to prove them wrong,” Matthew Orlando, Kargman’s fiancé, wrote.

Indeed, she then decided to go ahead with the idea by herself.

“A friend advised me to establish a production company, create an LLC and hire a crew. I had no idea what I was doing but I did it anyway.”

From there, she learned everything from the ground and embarked on the journey.

Kargman knew it would not be easy, but she carried on. Nick Higgins, Director of Photography for “First Position,” testified to her tenacity.

“She just does not stop until she achieves whatever she has set her mind to do,” he said. “She wanted to make this film and wasn’t going to let anything or anyone get in her way.”

Explaining her decision, Kargman said, “I feared regret more than I feared failure. I envisioned myself ten years down the road with screaming kids and an unfulfilling job, [and] I realized that if I was going to try to do this on my own, it was now or never. Once you have a family and a mortgage that needs to be paid, you have lost your opportunity to take crazy career risks — especially if you have no idea what you are doing.”

She was not going to let a prospective film go, especially when it would deal right in her own court: dance.

“If someone else started to make [a film about young dancers in ballet competitions] … I would be devastated,” she said.

Even without going through competitions as a young dancer, she had her years of dancing as background knowledge.

“I knew how to tell stories, shoot or edit … and I knew the right questions to ask.”

All the Right Moves

Asking the right questions was the key to the success of “First Position.” Yet even before that, Kargman had to spot the talents. Choosing a handful of kids and teenagers to follow for over two years of filming and editing was no less risky than a gamble: to Kargman, it was the important decision she made during the process.

“I did not choose winners,” she said, even though almost all of her subjects had happy endings.

Instead, she went for incredible personal stories and something special, or as one of the protagonists referred to, that mysterious “x-factor.” It could be a dancer’s superb technique, amazing facility, maturity in performance or a combination of all of them that convinced Kargman that these kids would light up the big screen.

Yet watching them dance was only the first step. Next came background research, watching their home videos, meeting their families, spending hours on trial shoots, sitting through rehearsals and becoming, to a great extent, part of the dancers’ lives. As the camera rolled, Kargman had to watch her wallet too: fundraising for the film in the old-fashioned way, she pitched the film to art patrons and competitions, and her crew worked for a discounted rate. And then there were the down times. In the summer of 2011, while she was still editing “First Position,” Kargman recalled wondering if the movie would ever see the light of day.

“In my final month of editing I was so desperate to finish the film in time for the Toronto International Film Festival that I didn’t leave the house, didn’t change my clothes, didn’t answer the phone — I was like a zombie in a dark room sorting through hundreds of hours of footage. Let’s just say, it wasn’t glamorous.”

Yet she persisted, for she believed she had nothing to lose.

“If I failed, I could embarrassingly walk back to my parents and stay in my childhood bedroom,” she said, laughing.

It seems like that won’t be any time soon. “First Position” became a hit with critics and audiences alike: review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 96 percent of the critics wrote positively about the film, which also won Audience Awards at Dallas International Film Festival and Portland International Film Festival, to name a few.

“To see the film bought by Sundance Selects/IFC and then released in theaters around the world is a dream come true,” Kargman said, admitting that she had resorted to clichés in this situation.
That dream surely has flown much higher since.

This summer, Kargman moved from New York City to Los Angeles to further pursue narrative filmmaking, and now she is working on a documentary short for ESPN as part of the network’s upcoming series “Nine for IX,” dedicated to the 40th anniversary of Title IX, which opened doors of equal opportunity for female athletes in 1972. ESPN loved the discipline and athleticism portrayed by “First Position,” and apparently so did Whoopi Goldberg, who will produce Kargman’s new work. What will the next steps look like for Kargman? Impressed by Kargman’s drive and unique perspectives, Higgins is hopeful for Kargman’s future.

“Whatever Bess sets her mind to, she will accomplish,” he said.