Competitions can be intimidating. But their many benefits can serve you well, regardless of whether you come home with a prize. Whether you're a competition veteran or trying it for the first time, here are a few of our best tips for making the most of the experience.
Evaluate whether you're ready. You may be a technically advanced dancer, but competitions come with a whole other set of challenges, from networking to the stress of performing for judges. Before signing up, ask yourself these questions to clarify your goals and make sure you're prepared to handle the pressure.
It’s one thing to receive a nod of approval from your boss, but imagine how special it must feel to be validated by your fellow company members. Tomorrow, six English National Ballet dancers—Isabelle Brouwers, Jeanette Kakereka, Rina Kanehara, Erik Woolhouse, Daniele Silingardi and Cesar Corrales—will compete for the company’s seventh annual Emerging Dancer Award. And for the first time, we won’t have to await news from attendees across the pond. We can watch the action firsthand from the comfort of our own homes (slash coffee shops, office cubicles and cafeterias) when the event is live streamed Tuesday, May 17.
The Emerging Dancer Competition is a unique opportunity for young ENB dancers, chosen by their colleagues, to take center stage. Unsurprisingly, several past awardees have eventually become principals or soloists. Five of this year’s competitors are artists of the company (the equivalent of corps de ballets dancers); Cesar Corrales is a junior soloist. The men and women will each perform a solo and a pas de deux with one of their fellow competitors, with repertoire ranging from classical staples to new contemporary works.
The seven-person judging panel includes ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo, former Royal Ballet ballerina Viviana Durante and innovative British dance maker Sir Matthew Bourne. Additionally, all ENB dancers excluding principals are up for the People’s Choice Award, voted by the public throughout the season. Winners will be announced during the live stream.
In addition to the performances, tomorrow’s event promises the kind of backstage, behind-the-scenes footage we can’t get enough of. Make sure to account for time zones: 7:30pm in London means 2:30pm for East Coasters, 11:30 Pacific Time. Head to ENB’s special webpage to tune in.
Last week’s Youth America Grand Prix Finals was a display of impressive dancing from hugely talented young competitors. Ranging from 9 to 19 years old and hailing from countries as far away as Switzerland and Australia, they gathered in New York City to compete in the senior, junior and pre-competitive age divisions. The awards ceremony was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last Friday, and prizes went beyond medals and bragging rights. A number of ballet organizations worldwide, including San Francisco Ballet School and The Royal Ballet School, handed out training scholarships, and companies like Houston Ballet and Dutch National Ballet even awarded some professional contracts. Here are 2016's top YAGP winners:
Joonhyuk Jun (17)—UK/Korea
1st Place: Yu Hang (16)—China
2nd Place: Thays Golz (18)—Brazil
3rd Place: Makensie Henson (15)—Australia
1st Place: Narcisco Alejandro Medina Arias (17)—Cuba
2nd Place: Stanislaw Wegrzyn (17)—Germany/Poland
3rd Place: Motomi Kiyota (15)—Japan
Youth Grand Prix
Antonio Casalinho (12)—Portugal
1st Place: Ashley Lew (12)—USA
2nd Place: Eri Shibata (14)—Japan
3rd Place (tie): Brigid Walker (14)—USA
3rd Place (tie): Kotomi Yamada (13)—Japan
1st Place: Itsuku Masuda (12)—Japan
2nd Place (tie): David Perez (12)—Mexico
2nd Place (tie): Samuel Gest (14)—USA
3rd Place (tie): Sheung-Yin Chan (14)—Hong Kong
3rd Place (tie): Yago Guerra (14)—Brazil
Outstanding Artistry Award
Rafael Valdez Ramirez (18)—Colombia
Natalia Makarova Award
Kenedy Kallas (15)—USA
Shelley King Award for Excellence
Jolie Rose Lombardo (12)—USA
Mary Day Artistry Award
Julia Rose Sherrill (17)—USA
Vincenzo Di Primo (18)—Austria
Madison Penney (11)—USA
Outstanding Choreographer Award
Click here for a full list of 2016 YAGP winners.
Misa Kuranaga felt completely in control when she performed the Black Swan pas de deux four years ago in the first round of the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. “It was as if there was a bubble around me and nothing could go wrong,” she says. Although the Boston Ballet dancer won a gold medal, discovering that she could perform under pressure made an even greater impact on Kuranaga, who became a soloist the following year and a principal in 2009. “Knowing that I could pull something off in a hard situation like a competition,” she says, “that stayed with me and gave me confidence.”
The competition world plays an expanding role in shaping professional opportunities. Bringing home a medal makes a difference, of course, even if like Kuranaga you already dance for a major company. The greatest benefits to competing, however, are often intangible: the connections dancers make to companies and colleagues and the growth they experience as artists. In a tight economy, competitions can yield scholarships and jobs that many can’t afford to pursue piecemeal. And, as Kuranaga discovered, they can give dancers a fresh edge, inspiring directors to take a closer look at someone they may have deemed promising, but were not ready to promote.
For many dancers, saving time and money is a motive for competing. A high-profile event like USA IBC is essentially an audition for the host of attending artistic directors and school directors. “Competitions augment the audition process,” says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director and a New York International Ballet Competition judge. “It’s a great way for directors to shop for talent.”
Competitions also offer opportunities to network—in fact, some events now schedule networking right into the program. At the Prix de Lausanne, there’s an afternoon when schools set up booths to talk with potential students. Winners are not the only ones to earn scholarships. “The exposure is terrific,” says Shelly Power, associate director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy and a 2010 Prix de Lausanne judge.
However, competitions do require some investment, not only in entrance fees but also in travel, coaching and costumes. Those costs need to be factored in before a dancer decides to enter, since some schools do not cover them. When you represent a company, however, the company generally pays for all costs. Fees, rules and regulations are clearly laid out on each competition website (see below).
Most schools and companies select the dancers who will compete. Anna Reznik, co-artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Academy of Dance, had seven students qualify for the Youth America Grand Prix finals, yet only the four whom the school deemed most mature went on to the final round in New York. “We look for students who consider a competition a learning experience,” says Reznik. “If you are just about prizes and medals, it’s a dangerous situation.” Many school directors agree those too focused on winning have problems even when they do well. They return to class with unreasonable expectations or become overanxious about the quality of their dancing if they don’t receive an award.
While dancers can still enter and compete if their schools do not select them, they may not be able to use their school affiliation. There can be advantages to going anyway. Dancers as successful as San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova have taken on the competition world solo and come back with contacts, and in some cases, jobs. However, it does mean you have chosen to ignore the school’s judgment on your readiness.
Only a handful of dancers walk away with medals. But losing often means far less than dancers fear. “I got offered my contract with Colorado Ballet right after I was eliminated,” says Andrew Skeels, who competed in USA IBC in 2006. “For me, it was like winning a gold medal.”
For some, the stress of competing outweighs any potential benefit. But if you have resilience, breaking yourself into the ongoing competitiveness of professional ballet might be another benefit. “The competition doesn’t stop when you are in a company,” says Welch. “You will still be auditioning for visiting choreographers; it’s just part of company life.”
If you decide to compete, remember that most dancers make their share of bloopers. Bruce Marks, chairman of the jury at the USA IBC, has seen even the greatest fail. “It’s not about being perfect,” he says. “Gelsey Kirkland fell down; if you are not falling, you are not trying anything. Bravery counts, but in the end, the process is the prize.”
Mistakes to Avoid:
A less-than-professional DVD. Most competitions require a DVD with entrance applications. While some competitors may be tempted to include more than what the application specifies—say, clips of all of their best performances—it will not increase their chances. “Make sure you read the requirement closely, and submit not more, not less, than what’s asked for,” advises Houston Ballet’s Shelly Power. “This is not the time to be creative.”
An overly-ambitious variation. Except for NYIBC, where students spend two weeks learning their variations on site, most competitions ask that you arrive with a classical and a contemporary variation already polished. Many students make the mistake of picking something that they always wanted to learn, even if it’s beyond their reach. “Pick a variation that suits you,” says Larissa Saveliev, co-founder of YAGP. “Often, that’s not the same as the one you like.”
Acting unprofessionally at the competition. Keep in mind that a competition can have the same impact on your future as an audition—people are watching you. Try to control your nerves and treat fellow competitors like colleagues. “There are other people around you backstage and in class,”says Saveliev. “Learn to share the space. That’s what will happen when you are in a company.” —NW
A competition doesn’t need the word “ballet” in its title to make a difference in your career. New York City Dance Alliance has long been a favorite with ballet dancers. Although NYCDA showcases versatile dancers, the competition, founded by Joe Lanteri, puts ballet front and center.
NYCDA has judges and faculty with deep ballet resumés. People like Duncan Cooper (San Francisco Ballet), Scott Jovovitch (Joffrey Ballet) and Daniel Catanach (Armitage Ballet) teach at NYCDA?alongside top jazz, tap and modern instructors. The ballet world pays attention to those who win the top ballet award. A number of the competitors have gone on to work at leading companies, including Boston Ballet’s Whitney Jensen and Melissa Hough, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Jon Bond and New York City Ballet’s Brittany Pollack.
Lanteri, a stickler for classical training, finds focusing on ballet benefits all of his competitors. Building and keeping a strong classical foundation helps dancers in other genres, and Lanteri likes to send the message that they are not going to get too far without ballet training. “We are so proud of the impact our NYCDA dancers have had in the professional ballet world,” he says. “It’s exciting to see these young dancers, who have valued technique throughout their convention years, transition into major companies. It really validates the emphasis we’ve put on bringing teachers from the professional world of ballet.” —NW
For Competition Details:
The American Dance Competition
Beijing International Ballet Invitational
Genée International Ballet Competition
New York City Dance Alliance
New York International Ballet Competition
Prix de Lausanne
USA International Ballet Competition
Youth America Grand Prix
Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston, TX.
Elite ballet competitions have become a fact of life. Considering the highly competitive job market these days, the Prix de Lausanne, Youth America Grand Prix and others like them provide access to apprenticeships, scholarships, exposure and, if nothing else, the opportunity to perform. Competitions have become a goal for which many students prepare—sometimes the whole year. Although they can be intimidating, a combination of choosing the right variation and receiving proper coaching will enable you to get the most out of the experience.
Months ago, you and your teacher or coach carefully selected a classical variation that would further your development and make an impression by showing your temperament, physique, age and experience to best advantage. Hopefully, if you compete in the junior division you were advised to avoid grand pas de deux and variations meant for principal dancers or leading characters. Such advanced material may present fun technical challenges, but don’t forget that along with the tricks, these variations also require a good grasp of style and character.
For example, it is hard for young boys to carry off the heroic virility of Actaeon, or Prince Désiré’s aristocratic bearing. And while the Black Swan is a favorite of many young girls, Odile’s mysterious and beguiling nature is difficult to achieve at a young age. Be careful especially of Esmeralda’s variation, now a popular choice of young dancers. Little Esmeraldas have been seen competing with sultriness and passion and no shortage of suggestive gazes more appropriate to baby beauty pageants than to the ballet from which it comes.
By now, many hours have gone into polishing the variation you chose. Now it is time to put your all of that preparation
to the test. “Focus less on difficulty and quantity of turns,” says Jeff Edwards, former associate artistic director of The Washington Ballet and a 2008 YAGP finals juror. “Concentrate more on quality, clarity and perfection of form.” The following suggestions should help you stand out for the jurors—and make you a better dancer.
Shoes You Can Fill
Show the judges—and the audience—who you are. Every variation is a little essay in character, personality and emotion expressed by means of dance vocabulary. There are many wonderful, challenging variations in the classical repertoire. Take the time to research the history, setting, style and characterization of what you will dance.
Variations from ballets by August Bournonville, with their joie de vivre and strength-promoting petit allegro, can be extremely suitable for young dancers to work on and perform. If you have chosen to dance a Bournonville variation, pay attention to the footwork, and the pitch of the head and upper body.
Jurors look for refined pointe work from the girls. “Pointe work is more than just dancing on your toes, it is how you articulate your feet while wearing a pointe shoe,” says Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, co-director of The Rock School in Philadelphia. For example, the ability to softly roll down from pointe is one of the main technical challenges in the Lilac Fairy variation. This is the element that defines the majestic, omnipotent power of the character. If the dancer cannot do the steps with ease, it is doubtful she’ll create magic.
For boys, big jumps, double turns and sauts de basque en l’air require the mastery of secure landings. A lack of control in landings can be dangerous, and it can interfere with portraying such characteristic qualities as heroic revolutionary enthusiasm in pas de deux from “The Flames of Paris,” bravado and self-assurance in Don Quixote and easygoing simplicity in La Fille mal gardée.
Respect for Tradition
Pay close attention to stylistic features, especially the use of the upper body—head, épaulement and port de bras. Incorporating these refinements is an essential element in developing your artistry.
Now that the internet makes it possible to view many versions of classical variations, it is important to check your sources. Because Marius Petipa’s ballets were choreographed and—along with their style and tradition of interpretation—carefully preserved in St. Petersburg, the Mariinsky (Kirov) Ballet versions are considered to be the most authentic. The same holds true for the Royal Danish Ballet and August Bournonville’s choreography.
Also be aware that excessive turns and high leg kicks can destroy the choreographic integrity of a variation, distorting transitions, musicality, style and character. Refrain from replacing signature choreographic features such as the diagonal of hops on pointe with pirouettes in Kitri’s variation. The hops and playful use of the fan are an opportunity to show yourself as an artist.
The test is to stand out in a variation as it was choreographed. Aside from their beauty and the skill required to execute them, the classical variations give judges a standard frame of reference to compare dancers. Mixing and matching fragments of variations taken from different ballets to suit a particular dancer’s skills only makes the judges distrust the dancer’s integrity.
Ballet is an art form with history and rules. When aspiring to compete in a competition, use the preparation to enrich yourself as a dancer. “Focus on the educational experience,” says Edwards. Because competitions bring dancers together from all corners of the world, “they are a great opportunity to train the eye and learn through comparison.”
Formerly a ballerina with the Mikhailovsky Theatre Ballet in St. Petersburg, Elena Kunikova was trained at the Vaganova Academy and is now a New York–based coach active in staging classical ballets.
Dressed to Shine
Costumes play a huge role in the jury’s perception of a performer. Moderation is always a good idea. Good taste is the hallmark of an artist.
- Big tiaras enlarge your head and can distort the balance of your proportions.
- Too much glitter and sparkle distract attention from your dancing.
- Long, opaque skirts and tunics look heavy and won’t show your lines.
- The clean shape of a classical or Romantic tutu will work for most variations. It is not necessary, especially for younger divisions, to wear a bra top for the “Pas de Trois” variations in Le Corsaire.
- If the color of your shoes, ribbons and elastics is darker than the color of your tights, the difference can obstruct the line of your foot.
Long established in Europe, choreography competitions are gaining increasing popularity on this side of the ocean. Here, companies such as Milwaukee Ballet, Ballet Austin, Ballet Nouveau Colorado and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, to name a few, are scheduling these contests as part of their season lineups in the hope of finding ballet’s next choreographic triumph.
“In dance,” says BA Artistic Director Stephen Mills, “there is so much choreographers need that they can’t just readily go out and get themselves. They need a venue, dancers—and an audience.” To fulfill those needs, Mills created BA’s choreography competition, New American Talent/Dance, which debuted in 2006 and took the stage again last February.
BNC launched its new 21st Century Choreography Competition (now called “dancemakers 2.0”) last April, with the similar goal of giving young choreographers a break by providing them with studio time, administrative support and the altogether key ingredient: dancers to create on.
While great choreography is the goal, for the dancers who must flesh out the choreographers’ ideas, a choreography competition is a chance to sharpen their craft mentally and physically—and to experience the ultimate perk: being part of the creation of a new work. It can be rewarding to be the first to perform, and in a sense, define a role, yet a competition puts the emphasis on the choreographers.
“It is always inspiring to know that you are so integral to the final product,” says BA dancer Allisyn Paino, “but it definitely challenges a dancer to be able to acclimate to each choreographer as quickly as possible.”
Unlike composers or painters, who get to work out their ideas in solitude, choreographers must wait until they can work with their dancers. Face to face in a dance studio, choreographers and dancers know that each relies on the other to turn an idea into a dance. To accomplish this, however, no two choreographers approach the task in the same way.
“There’s a major learning curve for dancers to get to know a new choreographer,” says BNC Artistic Director Garrett Ammon. For any new work that is created, the dancers must adapt quickly to each choreographer’s movement quality and vocabulary, not to mention personality quirks and rehearsal style. “It can make them a little insecure,” says Ammon.
Ammon and Mills relied on their dancers’ professionalism to smooth the adjustment to a new choreographer. Both also knew that despite the contemporary works in their respective repertoires, it can be hard for ballet dancers to feel comfortable with unfamiliar approaches to movement.
“I had to open my mind to more creativity in terms of the initial choreography,” says Paino. “One choreographer may be very specific, coming in and saying, ‘I want you to be here and do this.’ Then he or she looks at the movement on your body and adjusts it. Another choreographer comes in and says, ‘Here’s an idea that I am going for; now I want you to take these steps and make them look like this idea.’”
All told, a competition can throw these aspects of making work into uncomfortably high contrast. “The dancers didn’t love all the residencies,” says Mills, “but it was good for them to have to negotiate everything that goes on in the room. It makes them stronger, better artists and communicators. That’s a positive aspect.”
As if it’s not enough to have to absorb a different way of working along with the steps and musicality of a new work, for both of these competitions, time—or the lack of it—was another factor. BA allotted 40 hours to create a new, less than 20-minute work. BNC’s time frame was even shorter: 25 hours to create a ballet of at least 15 to 20 minutes.
“It was definitely short,” says Ammon. “The choreographers came in knowing that it was short. But it also created that extra little bit of pressure that I think pushed them out of their comfort zone.”
The choreographers were under the gun to be creative, and the dancers even more so. They knew that, competition or not, their job was to produce a compelling performance of whatever material they were given.
“At first I thought, This is a lot for the choreographers: They only have 25 hours,” says BNC dancer Sarah Tallman. “Then, half an hour into the rehearsal I thought, This is a lot for the dancers: We also have 25 hours to convey exactly what they want.”
Both Mills and Ammon were sensitive to the demands they were putting on their companies. “The rule was that no dancer could be in more than two ballets,” says Mills. It was a practical consideration, one that acknowledges the fact that concentration and endurance are both factors in sustaining good work—and avoiding injury.
At BA, for the creation period (the residencies were in sequence and did not overlap), choreographers had roughly four hours of rehearsal a day for two weeks in addition to the dancers’ daily class and other rehearsals. Even for workers used to that kind of concentrated physical effort, the scenario was pretty grueling.
Tallman’s survival tactic during BNC’s creation period was “lots of water, and lots of rest when we got it,” she says. “Usually on a five-minute break, the dancers will hang in the studio and work on some extra things. But by the end of the first week, I just needed to sit and let all of it saturate.”
Surprisingly, even though competitions are about winning, Paino, who has participated in both of BA’s competitions, doesn’t recall that being part of the focus in the studio. “I felt that we were just working,” she says.
“I never got the feeling that any of the choreographers were thinking ‘I want this to look like this because I want to win.’ This is their art. That’s what was important to them.”
And for the dancers, too, this is their art. Translating ideas into coherent movement is what dancers do every day, as is pushing themselves to be better.
“It’s so important for dancers to be chameleons, especially nowadays,” says Paino. “It was very different when ballet companies just did classical ballets, now it seems that every classical ballet company wants to do some contemporary work. It means the dancers have to be more malleable—or, at least, differently malleable.”
Choreography competitions may or may not yield the yearned-for triumph, yet regardless of the outcome, they have a lasting impact on a company’s dancers. The chance to be in on the creative process is something dancers often dream about. Surviving—and thriving—in the midst of the experience can yield a unique satisfaction and mark a step along the way toward artistic maturity.
Sixteen-year-old Daisy Long takes the stage during the quarter-finals at Switzerland’s Prix de Lausanne, dancing the contemporary variation she’s selected—Jirí Kylián’s One of a Kind, a somber solo, set to a melancholy cello, in which she wears all black. Although Long is number 15, she’s the eighth girl to dance this piece in front of the jury members today—and after her, they will see it 18 more times.
Backstage, Long isn’t so sure she’ll make it to the next round. A well-spoken, lanky blonde, she’s been rehearsing for months and is already a veteran when it comes to competing, having attended Youth America Grand Prix (twice), Helsinki International Ballet Competition and local events in her hometown of Los Angeles.
“I would like to get a scholarship to a school in Europe,” says Long, who studies at the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet. “But I also come to get inspired and see where I should be. These girls are so good!”
Along with the possibility of catching an early glimpse of a rising star, Prix de Lausanne earned its prestige for the unique opportunities it offers—dancers between ages 15 and 17 vie for coveted spots in the world’s top ballet schools, including The Royal Ballet School, John Cranko School and the School of American Ballet. The older candidates who really impress can secure apprenticeships in companies such as American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, Stuttgart Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. At the end of the day, the jury selects 23 dancers to continue to the semi-finals. Long doesn’t make the cut.
Despite the fierce competition, these days more and more dancers feel a pressure to compete, as many similar events crop up worldwide. Whether dancers come to network with key people in the ballet world or get a little more performance experience, they’ve no doubt heard the success stories: Jose Manuel Carreño won the grand prix at the USA International Ballet Competition in 1990; Darcey Bussell won the Prix de Lausanne in 1986; Sylvie Guillem won gold at Varna in 1983; and there are countless others. Even Mikhail Baryshnikov competed at Varna in 1966 and Moscow in 1969, picking up gold medals at both.
Danny Tidwell, a silver medalist in the junior division at 2002’s USA IBC, tells a more recent story of how competing helped his career. He had just left SAB when he decided to join friend and former Kirov Academy classmate Ashley Canterna in Jackson, Mississippi. After the competition, “Someone sent my tape to ABT,” Tidwell says. “They called me and said, ‘Do you want to be in the studio company?’” By 2003, he was in ABT’s corps de ballet. (Now he dances with Complexions Contemporary Ballet.)
International ballet competitions have been around for decades. Varna, founded in 1964, was the start of Olympic-style ballet events held every four years, but as far back as 1931, renowned dancer Adeline Genée began holding her Gold Medal Awards, which have since become the annual Genée International Ballet Competition, hosted by the Royal Academy of Dance.
Over the years, competitions have become big-money ventures. Top winners can receive as much as $15,000, as is the case in Moscow. The Prix de Lausanne operates with a cash budget of more than 1 million Swiss francs (about $780,000) and in addition to awarding cash prizes to winners, reimburses travel expenses for everyone who makes it to the semi-finals. The USA IBC’s budget for the year of the competition is $1,760,000. Additionally, according to an economic impact study, the USA IBC generated $6.2 million of revenue for the state of Mississippi during its two weeks in 2002.
In addition to monetary prizes, more are starting to offer scholarships to choice schools and even positions in companies. This year, for the first time, the USA IBC could hand out contracts to Miami City Ballet, Boston Ballet II, The Washington Ballet Studio Company and Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley. The top prize at the American Ballet Competition in June is a contract with BBII.
Despite the obvious material benefits for all involved, competitions pit artist against artist, leading many critics to lambaste them for their subjectivity, tendency to focus on tricks and failure to guarantee stardom. So how have competitions become such an integral part of so many dancers’ to-do lists?
Joshua Seibel, 16, an Arizona native who dances with Houston Ballet II, entered the Prix de Lausanne—his first competition—for the experience. Plus, he had never been out of the U.S. before. “I’d never even seen snow,” says Seibel, “so it’s been interesting. I just tried to come in with a happy attitude and to have fun.”
According to Bruce Marks, chairman of the jury at USA IBC since 1989, this is the best attitude you can have. “If you are coming here for a medal, you are probably not very bright,” he says, “because we are only going to give away 12 of those. But if you’re coming because you know it is going to be a wonderful learning experience, then you’ve already won.”
Marks says he hopes dancers focus instead on the opportunities to prepare for a professional-level performance, get the most from working with experienced teachers and coaches, meet key people in the dance world and see other dancers their age.
For Tidwell, this was the greatest benefit of competitions, which he began entering at age 12. “There was a point in my life when that was my only opportunity to take the stage,” he says. “When you are at a small school in the middle of nowhere, your recital happens once a year and you don’t get to see other boys dance.”
Australian Ballet Artistic Director David McAllister, who won the bronze in Moscow in 1985, says the camaraderie was his favorite part of the being there. “Julio Bocca won the competition I went to,” he says. “We got the experience of working with those people who then go to [companies] all over the world. You have that shared experience.”
The danger, he points out, is that competing can become addictive. “I think there are certain dancers who have careers based around a ballet competition,” says McAllister. “They go from one competition to the next until they finally win the gold medal, and then they retire and teach other kids to go to competitions.” He didn’t want that to happen to him, so, he adds, “I went to one competition and vowed I’d never do another one.”
Tidwell says this happens because being good at competing doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be right for company life. “Some dancers who do competitions or always win have a hard time coping with the corps de ballet or learning,” says Tidwell. “If you don’t like the learning process, then you’re not going to like to work…. [But most of us] want to be in the real world. We eventually want to use the power we have inside that we get from competition.”
Many say that competitions can offer students a preview of what it’s like in a professional setting—the intensive rehearsals, the coaching, etc. This is why Katherine Kersten says she wanted to start yet another competition, the American Ballet Competition, which was founded in 2004.
“There’s always room for good competitions,” says Kersten, who co-directs the ABC with Kee-Juan Han. “We felt what was really important was to help students learn the process of preparing for performances in front of a judging audience. That’s what all audiences are whenever a dancer steps out onstage.”
And as Marks says, “The process is the prize.... You learn so much, because you are trying so hard for a specific goal and for perfection. That’s what it’s really about.”
The truth is that competitions are subjective, often reward fabulous trickery and cannot realistically promise celebrated careers afterward. Once a dancer understands that, he or she can get past the desire for victory and concentrate on the educational aspect of competing.
“It’s not just about winning,” Dutch National Ballet Artistic Director Ted Brandsen says of the 2006 Prix de Lausanne, where he served on the jury. “The focus here is on the dancer as an individual. There’s a huge amount of care taken to discuss things with the dancers, whether or not they pass on [to the next round], to give them opportunity.”
After the quarter-finals, Daisy Long met with jury member Marylin Rowe, director of The Australian Ballet School, for corrections and advice. “She said I should use the floor more, get stronger and work on musicality,” Long says. “[Prix de Lausanne] really motivated me to work harder on my stamina. Many of the finalists seemed really comfortable onstage. I need to work on that.”
Now it looks like she’ll get what she came for. By the end of the competition, she had been invited to attend the John Cranko School, the Bavarian State Ballet School and the school at the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She just had to make up her mind.
Earlier this month, American dancer Katherine Higgins took third place in the junior ladies division at the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. The prize comes with 1,500 euros and a hefty dose of prestige. Now training at the Royal Ballet School of Antwerp in Belgium, Higgins, 15, will soon head off to her next big challenge: Varna.
How was the Helsinki IBC different from previous competitions, like YAGP and Prix de Lausanne?
It was the first time I had to prepare six variations: four classical and two contemporary. The long span of two weeks of competition was also new. It was a great exercise of endurance!
How much time did you spend preparing?
Each day, I spent about four hours after class working on all the variations. Some days I only worked on details in port de bras or the little in-between steps, other days it was all about run-throughs and stamina.
What was Finland like?
Finland is full of the nicest people. And they speak English! I didn't have much time to explore but there was some beautiful architecture in the center of Helsinki that I saw when we got to meet the mayor, who planned this incredible lunch for HIBC participants.
How do you deal with nerves before competing?
I take some calm time to myself to review corrections and technical aspects, but also decide what I want to bring to the audience with this particular performance. Then, before I go on, I say a quick prayer, think about my family and tell myself to have fun and to dance: I am about to go do what I love most in the world—that's so exciting!
Do you have any competition superstitions?
I used to kiss the center of stage before a show. Now, if I can, I really like to sit onstage all by myself when no one is there. Being all alone there calms me; I feel how it is to be on that particular stage with no pressure at all.
What's the one competition you'd love to win?
I'd love to win anywhere! If I had to choose one, it’d be Varna IBC, because of all the talented people who dance there, and all the factors that play into the performance: the heat, dancing outside, late hours. It takes a strong person to dance well there. And I will have the chance soon: Varna is where I’m headed next—I can't wait!