Larissa Savliev teaches class at YAGP. Courtesy YAGP.

YAGP Is Turning 20. But First It Had to Change the Ballet World's Opinion of Dance Competitions.

It's hard to imagine the ballet landscape today without Youth America Grand Prix. The annual competition attracts thousands of young dancers from all over the world, many hoping to win a scholarship to a major ballet school. This year, which marks the organization's 20th anniversary, roughly 12,000 students participated in YAGP's semi-finals in 32 cities here and abroad, and over 1,000 are in New York City this week for the final round. The stage at last night's Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala was packed during the student defilé (kudos to them for not knocking each other over!), while top alumni—including Kimin Kim, Isabella Boylston, and Hee Seo—made triumphant returns.

In recent years, other scholarship competitions have popped up around the country. But before YAGP was founded 20 years ago, it was a much different story. For bunheads, "competition" was almost a dirty word, one associated with back flips, hulking trophies and flashy jazz studios. And that's exactly where YAGP co-founder Larissa Saveliev found herself in the late '90s. She and her husband, YAGP co-founder Gennadi Saveliev, had defected from Russia a few years earlier, and the former Bolshoi Ballet dancer and new mom was teaching ballet at a studio in New Jersey. On weekends, she would travel with the school to jazz competitions, an experience she found deflating.



Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev at the Dance Magazine Awards. VAM, courtesy YAGP.

"The kids were dancing on carpet," says Saveliev. "The breaking point was when a scorecard came back saying the choreography needed improvement. I was like, are you kidding me? It's Petipa!"

She vented her frustrations to the studio owner, who explained that ballet dancers didn't come to competitions. "But I need to be around ballet people!" says Saveliev. The studio owner's advice? Stop whining and start your own competition. "So I said okay. I'll try it."

She knew the idea had value—ABT had offered Gennadi a contract (he eventually rose to soloist there) after spotting him at the now defunct New York International Ballet Competition a few years earlier. But where to begin? "There were no guidelines," Saveliev says. Most IBCs at the time were mainly for professional dancers and held several years apart. Switzerland's annual Prix de Lausanne catered to students but was very selective, meaning only a handful of Americans could realistically participate. "Here we were, not even 30 years old, barely speaking English—we really didn't know what we were doing," says Saveliev.

But they did have a vision. For one thing, they wanted their competition to be open to everyone and focus on scholarships rather than medals. "A medal you can hang in your room, but so what?" says Saveliev. "We wanted to offer something more substantial, where you don't have to be the 'winner' to get a prize." The couple also wanted to make it easier on families by holding semi-finals in a variety of cities. "I knew if we didn't make it convenient by coming to them that it would never work."

Convincing ballet schools, as well as scholarship presenters from major academies, was another story. "There was a stigma attached to competitions, and we had to change everyone's opinion," says Saveliev. She would often cold call studios with invitations."I tried to explain that we could be a place where you could audition for five summer programs at once." They were finally able to get American Ballet Theatre to agree to be a scholarship presenter, along with a handful of conservatories and regional schools.

A couple hundred students signed up for YAGP's 1999-2000 inaugural year, which included semi-finals in only five U.S. cities. "It was a total disaster," says Saveliev. "We were the pioneers, so we had to make all of the mistakes ourselves. I remember one girl had one number onstage and a different number for class, and it created this big mix up." After it was over the discouraged couple felt ready to throw in the towel. "But the phones kept ringing all summer long with people asking when we were doing the next one."

What appealed to teachers, she continues, was that their dancers were more motivated throughout the year. They had a goal to work towards, they could be seen by multiple directors and the scholarships could actually take them somewhere. Then there was the networking factor, for both dancers and their teachers. "Remember, back then there was no social media, not really internet, so it was like the first big bunheads club—they could be around other dancers and we were all speaking the same language." Saveliev also personally invested in the students—learning everyone's name, personal story and financial needs—and worked tirelessly behind the scenes matching dancers with schools.

The following year The Royal Ballet School signed on, and the year after that Stuttgart Ballet's John Cranko School. "That was the turning point," says Saveliev. Having three major international schools on board gave YAGP major credibility, and sparked the organization's rapid growth.

Twenty years, 100,000 dancers and $4 million in scholarships later, Saveliev is now concerned that YAGP has gotten too big. "I'm missing that personal connection with the kids," she says, and is considering scaling back a bit. Yet she's also thinking of ways the organization can help dancers who are on the college track, offer more scholarships at the regional level and increase cash prizes. "The minute you say, oh, I'm the best, and everything is great, you're done," she says. "There's always room to improve."

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After 25 Years, Victoria Morgan to Step Down as Cincinnati Ballet's Artistic Director

Last month, Victoria Morgan announced that she will step down as Cincinnati Ballet's artistic director at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. The organization's board of trustees has formed a committee to conduct a national search for her replacement.

Prior to coming to Cincinnati Ballet in 1997, the Salt Lake City native was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, as well as resident choreographer for the San Francisco Opera. She graduated magna cum laude from University of Utah, where she also earned her MFA, and has judged several international ballet competitions.

Entering her 25th and final season as director, Morgan has accomplished a lot at Cincinnati Ballet, not the least erasing the $800,000 in company debt she inherited at the outset of her tenure. To right the organization's financial ship she had to make tough choices early on—the first task the company's executive committee gave her was to release a third of the company's dancers. In her continuing effort to overhaul how the organization did business, in 2008 she became both the artistic director and CEO and set about building the company's now $14.5 million endowment. For the 2016–17 season, with the arrival of new company president and CEO Scott Altman, Morgan returned to being full-time artistic director and helped lead the realization of the organization's new $31 million home, the Margaret and Michael Valentine Center for Dance.

A champion of female choreographers, Morgan has also choreographed numerous ballets for the company, including world premieres of King Arthur's Camelot and The Nutcracker. She has also helped orchestrate several company collaborations, including 2013's Frampton and Cincinnati Ballet Live and joint productions with BalletMet.

Pointe caught up with Morgan to talk about her recent announcement.

Victoria Morgan is shown from the side standing on stage right, turning to smile at a line of costumed dancers to her left during bows. She wears a patterned green dress with chunky green high heels and holds a red rose in her hand.

Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet

Why leave Cincinnati Ballet now?

It's been an amazing run and I have seen it all. I am not sure where I would go from here. I also feel there is a required stimulus and infusion of new ideas and energy that always needs to be a part of a growing, evolving and exciting arts organization.

What made you happiest at Cincinnati Ballet?

The people, from the devotion of patrons and donors to learning from and feeling the pride in work from the staff. It has also been so satisfying for me to choreograph on and watch so many dancers evolve in their dance careers and lives.

Were there things you wanted to do for the company that you weren't able to?

There were other collaborations I wanted us to explore and choreographers I wanted us to work with. It takes quite an investment to make those happen.

Your legacy includes actively creating opportunities for female choreographers. What motivated that?

I started realizing, in a profound way, the gender inequities in our art form. Because I was in a leadership position, I thought I could do something about this and try to get to a 50-50 balance of male and female choreographers. It took a little time to find women to step forward, but it happened. Now there are many more prominent female choreographers, including our resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, and I am proud of that.

If you could handpick your successor, what qualities would you look for?

Somebody creative, charged up, and who can be visionary. Someone who has had a high-level experience in our art form. A leader who is demanding but also kind and supportive, and who opens doors to find new ideas while still embracing Cincinnati Ballet's philosophies.

What do you feel will be one of the biggest challenges for the new artistic director?

The important cause of DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility). Whoever steps into that position has to have awareness of the culture of today's conversation.

Do you plan to keep choreographing?

I am not being proactive about it, but if the opportunity presents itself, it would be fun.

What's next?

I feel my next calling is bringing movement to the biggest segment of our population, baby boomers. I want to be part of an initiative that makes moving and wellness enjoyable and enlivens people.

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