Bess Kargman is the director, producer, and editor of the new documentary First Position, which follows six young ballet dancers as they compete at the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious competition for scholarships to top ballet schools. In addition to making films, Kargman has produced stories for National Public Radio, The Washington Post and NBC Olympics. 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 it’s now playing at the Landmark Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge and Landmark Embassy Cinema in Waltham.
Do you see a connection between your dancing background and your film making career?
Definitely. Because I shared a common language and experience with these young dancers, I was able to gain their trust, “talk shop,” and capture their artistry and technique on film. I was welcomed into their homes and was given the opportunity to record the most intimate details of their lives. More often than not, dance documentaries focus on the stage and studio — exclusively.
Why did you decide to make this film?
I was sort of waiting for someone else to make this film… and I guess I got tired of waiting. The dance world is far more interesting and complex than most people realize. Not all ballet dancers are white. Not all ballet dancers are rich. Not all skinny ballerinas are anorexic. Not all male dancers are gay. And not all stage parents are psycho. I thought that I would be able to surprise the audience again and again if I chose young dancers who defied every stereotype in the book. I also wanted a lot of diversity — so there was a huge benefit to chronicling the journey of these dancers as they compete in the world’s largest youth ballet competition.
You seemed very intentional in your choice of dancers. Why did you choose to feature an Israeli dancer?
I have a very strong Jewish identity (coupled with a great love of Israel), so you can imagine my excitement when I found out that Gaya Bommer Yemini, 11, was the competition’s first Israeli entrant. Gaya is incredibly talented, beautiful and bubbly. I love the fact that her mother Nadine Bommer is a successful choreographer in Tel Aviv (who also creates her daughter’s contemporary dance pieces). And then of course when she falls in “puppy love” with another young man in the film (an American boy living in Italy)… something special unfolds.
Your film has received tons of critical acclaim. How do you feel about the mass marketing of dance through television shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance? Does it help the art or take away from it?
I actually don’t watch those shows. Not because I judge them or think they’re a poor reflection of the dance world — it’s just that they sort of give me a headache. Ninety-nine percent of the time their camerawork lops off limbs like they’re going out of style — most of the editing features isolated body parts messily inter-spliced. Fred Astaire would have a nervous breakdown. That said, I’m thrilled that the producers of Dancing With The Stars saw the film a few months ago, loved it and invited one of First Position‘s featured dancers (Michaela DePrince) to appear on the show in April.
Last week, Bess spoke at a special screening of First Position for Prism, the young adult initiative of the New Center for Arts and Culture. Learn about Prism Circles and explore Arts and Culture on JewishBoston.com.
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!