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The Judges Roundtable

We asked five frequent judges for their advice, their pet peeves and their approach to the scoring process.

Peter Stark, head of the men’s program at Boston Ballet School, associate director of Boston Ballet II

Valentina Kozlova IBC, Youth America Grand Prix

I am an advocate for competitions. I know there are people who are against them, but dancers can learn a lot when they’re working one-to-one versus in a classroom setting. My mentor Bruce Marks, who was chair of the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson for many years, said, “the process is the prize.” It’s true. As a coach, I’ve had dancers win and lose, but I certainly feel like the process of setting a goal and working on something is valuable.

Peter Stark leading class (photo by Igor Burlak, courtesy Boston Ballet)

One technical aspect that really has bothered me is that dancers are so hyper-focused on getting a leg up that they’re losing their hip alignment. That’s something I’d really like to see stop. I don’t find it attractive, and I don’t find it anatomically sound.

If a dancer is new or nervous about competing, I’d tell them this: You do the technical work in the studio, but when you walk onstage, you need to trust that it’s there and dance from your heart. At that point, you’re good at turning or not. There is nothing that is going to happen two minutes before the curtain goes up that will make your pirouettes better. You can have fun and connect on a human level, and that can make the difference.

Nina Ananiashvili, artistic director, State Ballet of Georgia

Beijing International Classical Ballet and Choreography Competition, Helsinki IBC, Prix de Lausanne, USA IBC, Valentina Kozlova IBC, Youth America Grand Prix

I was a competitor myself many times. I know how hard it is, so I try to give credit to the students. Of course I’m looking at talent, but everybody can make mistakes. I fell down during a competition, and I won. I tell dancers: Don’t be worried. You have the opportunity to come onstage and dance in front of these fantastic judges. Enjoy it.

Students today have very good technique. The flexibility? Incredible, and just yesterday, I saw 15, 13 pirouettes on pointe. But that doesn’t show how they are dancing. If they do 15 pirouettes and they are dancing? Fantastic. And everybody’s splitting, not jumping. Ballet isn’t gymnastics. We need to show off the art. If I ever have my own competition, I will write in the rules: No à la seconde kicks. Everybody can do that, but to show a nice position is very rare.

I see a lot of competitors who don’t know their character. They just do steps. And another problem around the world: Everybody’s dancing every variation the same way, especially the boys. There’s no difference now between Don Q, Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and Giselle. Everybody does the same arms, same steps. In Don Q, why are the arms like this? Because it’s a Spanish dance. You cannot do Sleeping Beauty’s arms in a Spanish dance.

Shelly Power, artistic director and CEO, Prix de Lausanne

Prix de Lausanne, Youth America Grand Prix, Valentina Kozlova IBC

The length of time I have to see competitors guides how I score them. My first impression of a dancer is extremely important. A weeklong competition like Prix de Lausanne is easier on the jury and allows for more time to suss out whether my intuition was correct. However, when the competition consists only of a two-minute variation, then that first moment is crucial. I leave room for error on account of the time allowance and that is when I look at potential: what could change, what can improve, what does this student need to get to the next level and do they have enough to get there.

I often see students dancing variations that are outside their technical ability, and this only hurts their scores overall. Age is important, and an appropriate variation is one that the student understands and can give proper attention to artistry. Artistry comes from the heart, however. I am looking for honesty and purity, for that spark in the eye that tells me they love what they are doing and respect the art form.

As for tricks, students and coaches need to ask one question: Does the step add value to the solo or take away from it? Solos need dynamics, stage skill, steps that link the music and story being told, and an artistic connection to the movement and music.

Deborah Hess, faculty, Canada’s National Ballet School

Beijing IBC, Japan Grand Prix, Youth America Grand Prix

My mantra is “potential, potential, potential,” because I am looking through the glass ball to see a bud that could blossom. What comes across most is that deep love of dancing, and how that can grow with training and encouragement. And I am always looking for students who enjoy the rigor. You can really see those who have the self-motivation to enjoy the work that’s required to be a dancer.

Deborah Hess teaching at Canada's National Ballet School (Photo by Johan Persson, courtesy NBS)

When judging contemporary, I look for how much they can change their temperament, musical diversity and nuance. Some students can really capture our imagination in a piece that’s very different from their classical variation. I am not so much looking at the choreography, but how they are doing it.

Some dancers may not excel in competitions, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be valuable company members—I know several who went on to become principal dancers. Someone can be excellent at a variation, but if they struggle to pick up different movement styles or can’t work well in a group, they will not do well in a professional environment. Use competitions to improve your skills and learn from everything around you.

John Meehan, international jury chair, USA International Ballet Competition

Genée IBC, Prix de Lausanne, USA IBC, Youth America Grand Prix

The first things I notice are confidence, presence, posture. I can tell so much about what I am about to see from the way dancers use their feet as they walk onstage. Bravura technique is exciting, and when combined with control and artistry it makes for a winning combination. But detail and neatness in technique counts for more than some young dancers would think.

As for artistic aspects, I look for musicality, focus, épaulement and port de bras, physicality, and expression appropriate to the piece that they are performing. Whether it’s a classical performance versus a contemporary one, we are still looking for quality in whichever style is being presented. Contemporary work is a chance for a dancer to show another aspect of their dancing through freedom of movement and dynamics, which we don’t see in their classical variations. I have seen riveting performances of contemporary work where there are no tricks or steps derived from the ballet vocabulary.

Dancing a variation, whether in a competition or in the context of a ballet performance, is essentially the same thing. The key is to focus on the intention of the choreography. Finally, managing the stress of a competition can teach you a lot about yourself—a valuable lesson as your career progresses. 

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

Let Curiosity Be Your Guide

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Summer Study Advice
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As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.

I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.

The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.

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via YouTube

It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

Animal roles might not typically be what dancers dream of performing…but they're oh-so-fun to watch. You can't help falling under their spell (and perhaps aspiring to dance one someday). Here's a round-up of some of our favorite furry and feathered roles.

Bunny Hop

Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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