How does it feel to be a competitor at the Prix de Lausanne? It’s day three of the annual week-long competition in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the more than 70 dancers are managing long yet exhilarating days full of classes and coaching sessions, while being evaluated by a nine-member jury. On top of that, the students from North and South America, Asia and Australia have a major time difference to contend with. “The jet lag was okay at first, but now it’s starting to get to me,” says Nayeli Paez, 17, from Mexico. “It was so hard to get up this morning!”
And there’s another challenge: The stage is raked, or sloped towards the audience. On Monday, you could see the candidates struggle through their turns and jumps as they tried to adjust. “It’s really steep,” says 17-year-old Houston Ballet II dancer Caroline Perry. She's performing Giselle’s Act I variation, which includes traveling hops on pointe. At the end, she says, “you’re going downstage, so you want to speed up or fall forward. I have to keep my weight back.” Fellow HBII dancer Andrew Vicseri, 17, learned a trick from his teacher: “If you look slightly up whenever you do turns or tours, it will put you on balance because it will help keep your weight back and project more.”
The competition’s week-long format has helped everyone grow more comfortable in class and onstage. This is especially true for the contemporary portion, which is given equal emphasis. By today, many of the boys were looking more confident for the judges in Didy Veldman’s contemporary class. (At one point, they even had to make crazy facial expressions in slow motion.) Each dancer is also receiving private coaching on both their classical and contemporary variation (a piece from John Neumeier’s repertoire). Paez, who moved to the U.S. to dance with HB II, notes that Hamburg Ballet ballet master Laura Cazzaniga helped give her solo from Nocturnes more artistic context. “She told me that I have to create my own story,” she says. “It’s a variation about dreams and memories, so I’m thinking of my home in Mexico and the memories that I’ve had there.”
Everyone I spoke with said that the best part of the Prix so far has been meeting new people from all over the world. “It’s just so magical, the atmosphere,” says 18-year-old Stanislaw Wegryzn of Poland, who hopes the competition will lead to a job offer. “I think in the future all of us will be dancing professionally, and all of us will be friends.”
Madison Young is having the best month ever. Two weekends ago, the 17-year-old Houston Ballet II dancer was performing her heart out at the Prix de Lausanne, the prestigious scholarship competition held every year in Lausanne, Switzerland. Sixty-seven young dancers from around the world were selected to compete, and Young—the only American among the 20 finalists—impressed the jury enough to win second place. Upon her return to the States last Tuesday, she was offered an apprenticeship with Houston Ballet. Here, Young talks with Pointe about her experience.
Why did you want to go to the Prix de Lausanne?
So many talented dancers who have come out of it are now principals, and it’s an amazing way to meet other dancers from around the world. I think that’s why I wanted to go—to meet people and build bridges with them.
How far in advance did you start preparing?
We started in the beginning of December. We had to squeeze in practices between Nutcracker performances and rehearsals, so any free time that we had we’d be like, Okay, let’s run it! Then in January, after Nutcracker died down, we really went full steam ahead. We had to choose one contemporary variation and one classical—I chose Sleeping Beauty.
What was your schedule like once you got there?
In the morning we’d start with ballet or contemporary. Sometimes the jury would come watch class and score us. Afterwards, we’d have a lunch break, then contemporary and coaching sessions. Everyone performed their variations and contemporary piece that Friday night. About a half hour after the show, the jury announced who would be dancing in the finals the next day.
What’s it like having a jury watch you take class?
It makes me very nervous, but I just have to stay calm and think about it as a regular technique class. It’s what I do every day—it’s what I’ve been trained to do. But the jury is made up of all these incredible dancers who I idolized growing up! It was nerve-racking but awesome at the same time.
What were the coaching sessions like?
Our own coaches weren’t allowed to work with us at the Prix de Lausanne—they provided us with one. For the first coaching session, each candidate was allotted eight minutes. For the second one, we each had only four minutes—it was like, here’s the information and it’s up to you to fix it. Cynthia Harvey, a former principal at American Ballet Theatre, coached me. She offered a new perspective, a new way to think about things.
Were you able to socialize much with the other dancers?
Oh, a lot! We had long lunch breaks sometimes, and we’d all sit at the same table and talk. Almost everyone spoke English. But even if they only spoke a little, it was enough to have a simple conversation.
Before your performances, how did you calm your competition nerves?
I stayed backstage while I was waiting for my turn because I like to support everyone else. It made things a lot easier, mentally, to know that there were people out there rooting for you and that you were rooting for them. I also went through the whole dance in my head and my upper body—I tried not to worry about what was happening below, because once you’re out there, you’re performing for the audience. Then, I took a really deep breath before I went on because it calms my nerves and brings my heart rate down, and it reminds me to just perform.
How did you feel about placing second?
It was exhilarating! I immediately looked for my teacher, HB II ballet mistress Sabrini Lenzi, when the curtain came down because I couldn’t have done it without her. It also hit me that suddenly all these doors opened that weren’t open before.
What was the best thing about your experience?
The people, from the teachers to the coaches to the jury to the students. Talking to them and meeting them was my favorite part. I’ll definitely be keeping in touch.
Here 's a list of all the 2016 Prix de Lausanne prize winners:
- Hang Yu, 16, China
- Madison Young, 17, USA
- Vincenzo Di Primo, 18, Italy
- Leroy Mokgatle, 16, South Africa
- Laura Fernandez, 18, Switzerland
- Junnosuke Nakamura, 16, Japan
- Dingkai Bai, 16, China
Contemporary dance prize: Laura Fernandez and Vincenzo Di Prima
Best Swiss Candidates: Laura Fernandez
Audience favorite: Leroy Mokgatle
Prix Jeune Espoir: Danbi Kim, 15, South Korea
When the San Francisco Ballet School trainees flew to Texas for a week of classes and performances with Houston Ballet II last year, HBII dancer Mackenzie Richter felt the need to step up her game. “The SFB dancers were so talented,” says Richter. “I realized right away that I was representing my school, and that pushed me to do my best.”
There’s nothing quite like the jolt students receive from a change of surroundings. And as school collaborations become increasingly popular, it’s easy to see why. In addition to allowing dancers to experience new teachers, they provide opportunities for them to assess the competition, network and learn about other cultures both inside and outside the studio. “When you leave the nest and see the bigger world outside your studio walls,” says Houston Ballet Academy director Shelly Power, “you see how different dancers approach their work.”
Upping the Ante
Houston Ballet launched its inaugural exchange with the SFB School Trainee Program in 2014 for a whirlwind week of classes, rehearsals and outings, all of which culminated in two final performances. In addition to rehearsing their own repertoire, the dancers worked together on a joint piece, rehearsing separately with a video ahead of time so that they were both on equal footing once they came together. This November, HBII traveled to San Francisco for an equally jam-packed collaboration.
Richter experienced several “aha” moments during the 2014 exchange. “I watched how the SFB trainees incorporated corrections from our teachers that we have heard over and over,” she says. And taking class from SFB faculty opened her eyes to other ways of thinking about her technique.
“New teachers always breathe new life into corrections,” says Power, who noticed a definite bump in growth among the students. “Peer-to-peer competition is good because comparison always gives us a new benchmark to assess ourselves,” she says. “Maybe you need a little push, and seeing other students as good as you are puts you on that higher level.”
American Ballet Theatre Studio Company director Kate Lydon agrees. For more than a decade, the ABT Studio Company has joined forces with The Royal Ballet School for master classes and joint performances as a way to expand the dancers’ horizons. The schools take turns hosting each year, and the dancers have plenty of opportunities to sightsee. “Whenever we travel, it’s marvelous for the dancers to be exposed to such a high caliber of training,” says Lydon.
Some students thrive on the surprising similarities an exchange can offer. “It’s really inspiring to take class and talk with these students who are just as passionate as you are about what you do,” says former ABT Studio Company member Tyler Maloney, now an ABT apprentice. “Even though we all have this similar ultimate goal, it’s interesting to see how we all come from completely different upbringings.”
Building Cultural Awareness
At the Sarasota Cuban Ballet School in Sarasota, Florida, founders Ariel Serrano and Wilmian Hernandez, who both defected from Cuba in 1993, arranged an exchange with the Cuban National Ballet School because they wanted to expose their students to the school director—and their former teacher—Dr. Ramona de Saa. In April 2014, Serrano and Hernandez brought a group of students to Cuba to participate in an international competition and a workshop at the school in Havana. Then in July, de Saa and a half-dozen dancers from the National Ballet School came to Sarasota. They repeated the exchange in 2015, and hope to make it an annual event.
“For the Cubans, it’s an opportunity to highlight their impressive legacy of dance training, which is, justly, a matter of great national pride,” says SCBS executive director Carol Hirschburg. “For SCBS, it’s a celebration of the Cuban method of dance training and an opportunity to promote it to students in the U.S.”
Because both schools are Cuban in lineage, there are few training differences, yet the classroom culture is slightly different. “Cuban students must adhere strictly to every rule or they are suspended immediately,” says Hirschburg. “They work so hard,” says SCBS student Lucy Hamilton. ”They inspired us to work even harder.”
For the American students, traveling to Havana opened their eyes to the Cuban dancers’ economic circumstances. Although the Cuban government provides the training, basic supplies (such as pointe shoes) are very expensive. “Even though they have so little, they have such a positive attitude,” says Hamilton. When the National Ballet School students came to Florida, SCBS arranged for local dancewear shops to donate much-needed supplies for them.
A week may not seem like enough time to make much of an impact on one’s training, but that isn’t really the whole point. Young dancers return inspired to be part of ballet’s global legacy. “It was arguably the best experience of my life,” says Hamilton. “We formed what I think will be lifelong friendships.”
“Collaborating brings the world closer together and gives students an experience that they will take into their future,” says Power. “Having teachers from around the world brings the past to the forefront and gives students a sense of the tradition of ballet training.”
Summer Scholarship Opportunity: Project Resilience
Project Resilience, a dance scholarship organization dedicated to helping students from underserved areas pursue professional ballet careers, is offering a $1,500 scholarship to “The Resilient Ballet Dancer of the Year,” to be used towards a summer intensive at American Ballet Theatre, Dance Theatre of Harlem or Houston Ballet. Project coordinator Everett Dyson says that the awardee will be a dancer from an underserved urban community who has an incredible story to tell, someone who has “stayed at it, kept going, because that’s their passion.” Dyson was inspired by the Project’s two high-profile backers, Misty Copeland and Lauren Anderson, to help students achieve their dancing dreams.
Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org by April 1, 2016. For detailed application instructions and more information, go to theresilientdancer.wordpress.com. —Hannah Foster
“A teacher once told me to imagine pulling up my jeans on a humid day to help me lengthen the front of my hips when standing. That feeling helped place me in the right posture, as well as give my dancing a more lengthened look.”
—Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal Jo-Ann Sundermeier