Sixteen-year old ballerina Miko Fogarty may be an American teen prodigy, but despite hailing from that land steeped in stardom culture, she seems to have none of the usual celebrity trappings — or to be particularly interested in them.
When we met recently on a steaming August afternoon in Tokyo, she had on a well-laundered T-shirt she’d bought in Bulgaria while she was there competing in a ballet competition, a pair of cut-off jeans and hemp sandals. She was wearing little or no makeup and refrained from flouncing around or showing off, even a little bit.
Beside this beaming ballet prodigy sat her mother Satoko, a former concert pianist from Osaka. Miko had just spent a few weeks at her grandmother’s house in the city of Nishinomiya in Hyogo Prefecture, between Kobe and Osaka.
Now she was in Tokyo to promote “First Position,” a ballet documentary and U.S. box-office hit directed by Bess Kargman in which she features prominently.
The film — whose honors gained before its official release in the U.S. and Japan last year include both the Best Documentary and Best New Director prizes at the Portland International Film Festival in Oregon and the Jury Prize at the San Francisco Documentary Festival, as well as the Audience Award at the Dallas Film Festival — follows several young ballet dancers from all over the world as they compete in the elite Youth America Grand Prix, where their life dreams are at stake.
In the final round, the action reaches fever pitch as the event’s original thousands of hopefuls are whittled down to just a handful competing for coveted contracts and scholarships, as well as the chance to dance in a gala and appear on a television talk show.
During our meeting, Satoko’s gaze was rarely off her daughter, and clearly there was a bond that went beyond the maternal. They’re both performance-arts professionals and, as such, her mother seems to know exactly what Miko requires to climb up another rung on the sky-high ballet ladder.
“It’s not a question of what she wants, really,” said Satoko (in English). “Because what she wants is to do ballet. It’s always a question of what she needs to get to the place she wants to go with the ballet. There’s nothing else.”
Miko’s younger brother, Jules Jarvis (aka J.J.) used to dance with his sister, and when she was younger Miko’s dream was for them to perform in the same ballet company together. But J.J. stopped dancing after deciding he didn’t have his sister’s passion and drive. “He wanted to become a normal boy,” Satoko says. “It wasn’t easy, but I came to terms with that.”
Miko’s father is a British entrepreneur with his own software company in the Bay Area of California close to San Francisco. She herself was born in London — just in time for that year’s Wimbledon tennis tournament.
“I remember sitting on the sofa, nursing Miko and listening to the tennis and thinking, ‘Well, this girl could be a tennis player!,’ ” Satoko recalls. “Instead, she chose ballet.”
But Satoko stresses that had her daughter chosen something else, she — as her mother — would have offered 100-percent support. “Maybe it’s because I used to be a concert pianist and practice every day and all that … but I hated the idea of sitting at home after I got married. I wanted to go out, and I wanted my kids to come with me. That meant lessons, and I was happy to take them from lesson to lesson and to see what they most wanted to learn.”
In “First Position,” Satoko says to the camera that she never tired of watching her children dance, and now, after meeting her, it’s clear she meant every word. “My mom,” says Miko, a little shyly but looking at her mother with adoration, “she’s just been so enormously supportive.”
Before ballet, Miko took swimming, tennis and dance classes — but she says nothing excited her as much as slipping her feet into ballet shoes and standing on her toes. She had her first lesson when she was 4, which is around the age most ballet professionals start. By 17, the cream of the crop have competed in and won a number of international contests, and have geared themselves for ballet scholarships or to be selected to join a prestigious company.
So Miko, who has won coveted medals at competitions in Lausanne, Switzerland, Moscow and the Youth America Grand Prix (this, when she was 12 years old), is firmly on course to forge a brilliant career for herself.
But rather than thinking about the future, she has always just directed her efforts toward the next stage or the next production. “Ever since she was very little, Miko has had wonderful powers of concentration and discipline,” says Satoko. “But it was only after she started doing ballet that she became happy as well — all smiles.”
In August, Miko danced excerpts from the title role in the 1880s French ballet “La Esmeralda” by Jules Perrot in a “Lausanne Gala 2013” staged at the Aoyama Gekijyo Theater in Tokyo’s glitzy Shibuya district. The prestigious event drew a huge crowd of ballet fans eager to see not just Miko but star Japanese dancers working with overseas companies, including Yuriko Kajiya (American Ballet Theatre), Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet) and Shoko Nakamura (Berlin State Ballet) among others.
Nowadays, there are Japanese ballet dancers in almost every prominent ballet company across Europe and the United States — yet at home the state limits its involvement to just the National Ballet of Japan founded in 1997 and based at the New National Theatre, Tokyo.
Though this lack of public support has undoubtedly held back ballet in Japan ever since the performance art arrived here in the modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912), there are nowadays no fewer than 4,630 “official” ballet studios nationwide, currently with more than 400,000 students. But adding to that unofficial studios run by former dancers, who often teach from home, and there may well be more than 10,000 in all.
Official or not, though, close to 90 percent of all these studios are independently owned and receive no public funding or subsidies. So ironically, while some of the best ballet dancers in the world are Japanese, it’s as if their own government either doesn’t know or doesn’t care.
Against that backdrop, Miko — who has Swiss, British and Japanese passports — is in the enviable position of being able to count on her parents’ commitment to her career. And “First Position” addresses the issue of parents with ballet kids, for whom they must fork out for toe shoes, which can be worn out after just one day’s hard practice but cost around $80 dollars a pair. Meanwhile, a tutu lasts longer but will set them back anything from $1,200 to $3,000.
Nonetheless, not one of the mothers featured in the documentary has a job — instead they’re driving little dancers from one studio or competition to the next, or making tutus on their home sewing machines. For their part, fathers often relocate their jobs so their children can be “closer to the ballet” — like Miko’s dad, who moved his office headquarters and family home from Palo Alto to Walnut Creek.
In the film, his take on his daughter’s dancing is: “If we hadn’t been a ballet family, we would all have been 10 pounds (4.5 kg) heavier, taking a lot more vacations and watching a lot more TV.”
As it is, the family can rarely take even a day off; Miko is at the studio seven days a week, up to six hours a day — with Satoko by her side. She homeschools, which is common among American kids looking to become professionals but is frowned upon in Japan and some countries in Europe. Across the European Union there are also a number of ballet academies where youngsters can follow a regular school curriculum for half the day and hit the barre for the rest.
In Japan, there’s no such system as this, and the best and often the only solution is to send a promising dancer overseas and enroll them in an academy where they can learn the language and study under ballet masters at the same time.
But however and wherever a ballet dancer trains, the human body dictates that their on-stage life will be short, with age 40 or thereabouts being a cutoff for the minority who can even carry on until then. After they’ve taken their final bow, Japanese dancers generally return home to pass on their skills as teachers. Teaching, though, is notoriously low paid, with annual earnings of around ¥2 million the norm — out of which they must pay production fees for recitals, and for any unsold tickets.
But if that’s bad, the ¥3 million to ¥3.5 million annual salary for principal dancers with the National Ballet of Japan is downright shameful and barely enough to support themselves and their art.
Miko is well aware of the harsh realities of being a ballet dancer in Japan — but she also knows that the Japanese revere and respect ballet in a way that’s “just not possible” in the U.S. Whenever she comes here and stays with her grandmother, commuting to a ballet studio for daily practice, she says she is inspired by how hard the Japanese ballerinas work, their total dedication and unflagging stamina.
“They’re also so skinny, much skinnier than the ballet dancers in the U.S.,” she says. “I think it’s because they have to walk everywhere. They walk to the train station, they walk to the studio.” Her mother Satoko adds: “Miko gets very lean when she’s in Japan. It’s the food, and it’s the daily walking. People are much more disciplined and self-controlled, too.
“And whenever I come back to Japan, I’m always struck by how people here love and respect the arts. In trains, people are reading literature. They throng the book stores and in spite of the bad economy they go to concerts and buy tickets for the ballet. It’s amazing. I just don’t see that in the States.”
Of course Satoko herself loves art and music, and she has made it her mission in life to see that her artistic daughter fulfills her tremendous potential. “My own mother supported my piano-playing in every way. I’m very grateful for that, and so I just want to do for Miko what my own mother did for me,” she says in a way that speaks loud and clear of love.
Bess Kargman’s award-winning documentary, “First Position,” is out on DVD for sale and rental.