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2006 USA International Ballet Competition

Hey Fervor -- The Jackson Report

by Dean Speer

June17-21, 2006 -- Jackson, Mississippi

It drives me absolutely crazy that the Southern salutation of “Hey!” has recently migrated as far north as the moist climes of Seattle and the greater Northwest. I cannot stand hearing it, but have to endure it, as it’s on practically everyone’s lips. But at its root home, it feels like a genuinely warm and friendly greeting and becomes music to the ears – with its Southern and musical diphthong emphasis on the “e” sound.

Being at the IBC as “credentialed media” to cover Round I of the three rounds was a heady and marvelous “hey!” experience, one I hope all you darlin’ “hushpuppies” out there get to enjoy someday.

Held once every four years, the IBC is the only ballet competition of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. This time it attracted 98 competitors from 23 different countries –121 were selected to compete, but some were unable to make it or had to drop out. The representatives from China, for example, could not go, allegedly due to finances. The “Olympics” of the ballet, competitors enter for recognition, to see and be seen amongst their peers, and to learn from each other. Additional benefits include coaching, taking classes every day from master teachers, and being exposed to alternate dance such as the performances given this year by Ballet Hispanico and Garth Fagan’s company. There is also a school for students and a workshop for teachers.

The event costs the IBC about $3 million, including a small staff and a platoon of volunteers and supporters. Venues include the Thalia Mara Hall, named for the famed IBC Founding Artistic Director, which is where most of the performances take place.

Others are Millsaps College, the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, and the “Olympic Village” of the IBC, Belhaven College, where most of the competitors live, eat, and take their daily classes. Belhaven College recently completed a lovely new building that’s exclusively for dance which includes some very nice studios that overlook Belhaven’s Elysian fields and fountains.

Highlights of the IBC for me included not only seeing some “Wow!” dancing but also applauding and admiring the fortitude, drive, talent, and hard work of every competitor. To the dancers who slipped or made small mistakes: hurray to each of you for getting up and carrying on. Bravo to everyone who entered. You showed courage and a larger commitment to your art. Thank you! And congratulations to each medal and scholarship winner.

Other highlights for me included being reunited with two former colleagues from Chattanooga Ballet, whom I had not seen in about 17 years. It was a thrill to see them again and to catch up. These former dancers are now teachers themselves and were at the IBC for the Teachers’ Workshop with Finis Jhung. We ran into each other at a luncheon presentation on tutu construction given by tutu.com, which was delightful. I was enchanted to see two that had been worn by Margot Fonteyn and were being modeled by young ballet students. We all remarked on how petite Fonteyn must have been.

Memorable also were the interviews we conducted. Our goal was to get the IBC perspective from different angles and so we targeted talking with one juror, a competitor, and one of the teachers. We ended up being so fortunate to visit with juror Nina Novak, Davit Karpetyan and his “non-competing” partner Vanessa Zahorian, and master teacher Finis Jhung.

It was also great fun to actually meet, face-to-face, one of our previous interviewees – Cynthia Harvey. What a nice and outgoing person! I observed her being friendly and welcoming to everyone, which says a lot about her character. It was certainly exhilarating to meet her and the other official Master of Ceremonies, John Meehan.

And on our last day in town, we had the fun of getting together with one of my former ballet teachers – Gwenn Barker (who had been in the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo with Novak) – and a mutual colleague of ours over breakfast to catch them up on how Round I went and give them the blow-by-blow. Barker had encouraged us to attend, offering us her Round I tickets which she was unable to use. I’m so grateful she nudged us in Jackson’s direction!

Entrée – Some take-home memories:

In an effort to get to know Jackson, I toured some historic houses – very impressive – and popped into the restored Union Station. It’s clear that many parts of Jackson need some loving care, including the amazing Hotel King Edward. There seemed to be too many acres of parking lots where there used to be buildings.

I ran into Cynthia Harvey (former principal with American Ballet Theater and the Hostess of Ceremonies at this year’s IBC) and Viktor Kabaniaev (of the Kirov Ballet, now with Diablo Ballet, at the IBC as a coach) over lunch, and was also introduced to Johannes Ohman, Artistic Director of Stockholm's 59 ° N, which uses soloists of the Royal Swedish Ballet. Everyone seems to be delighted to be here, and the word on the street – at least the word in the dining room – is that the level of competitors is VERY high.

I also ran into USA IBC founder Thalia Mara just about everywhere I went – at least her spirit and the fond memories of those that knew her, including members of her church’s congregation who heaped high praises, citing her quick wit, great sense of humor, and energetic commitment to ballet.

The Parade of Nations during the Gala Opening, where each of the flags from the various competitors' countries were brought in by the competitors. While the pit orchestra played the Olympics’ theme-song, all the dancers made their way through the house with the flags and up onto the stage to take their respective places behind the jury. Then the 2002 Gold Medal Winner, Joseph Phillips (USA), brought the "Olympic" torch up, passed it to Bruce Marks, who lit the IBC flame. Great stuff – truly moving, thrilling, and very theatrical.

Tina Ramirez' Ballet Hispanico book ended the dance portion of the show. Ann Reinking's 1997 addition of "Ritmo y Ruido" certainly added much pizzazz and flashing energy to the show. It's a good piece that uses and builds on her considerable jazz/ballet and show-business experience.

Next up were past winners, first with Joseph Phillips doing a solo from Ashton's "Sylvia," followed by the male solo from Act III of "Swan Lake" performed by Rolando Sarabia, and then the complete "Le Corsaire" brightly danced by Adrienne Canterna and Danny Tidwell. Concluding the first half was Phillips in a solo from "La Bayadere."

After Interval, they got to show their modern side with Sarabia in "Cross the Line," Canterna in a 'fusion' solo that was quite good – "Hallelujah" – and finishing with the very impressive Tidwell's "Power of the Gospel" which really allowed him to meld his technical strength with solid acting and feeling. (Did they all agree in advance that they were going to do something religious?) The show concluded with "Club Havana,” Ballet Hispanico's steamy essay, given on an appropriately steamy Southern night.

Adagio – Some of my winners and impressions from Round One, Session One:

A clear gold medal winning performance was given by Japan's Yui Yonezawa with “non-competing” partner Georgi Smilevksi in the complete Grand Pas de Deux from "Don Quixote." They had *everything* worked out – from every pose and step to every glance and transition, fabulous balances, and a good reading of the characterization of the intent of the ballet.

Not all steps fit all bodies, like not all vocal parts fit all voices. One unfortunate choice by whoever picked the first solo for Anna Nikulina [(Russia) – Senior, Bolshoi (Coach: Ekaterina Maksimova); Swan Lake, Act III variation; Don Quixote variation,] did not choose well for her. Her long and lanky body didn't look good in the Swan Lake variation (it's one of the alternate versions). So I have to fuss at either Maksimova or Nikulina's teachers or whomever, for allowing her to go forward with something that did not show her off. (Her Don Q variation, on the other hand, DID show her off very well indeed. It's all a matter of choices.)

Yu-hee Son [(South Korea) – Senior, Universal (Coach: Eun Hee Rhee); Esmeralda variation; Swan Lake, Act III variation] who lost her concentration during her first, Esmeralda, variation, looked great during the same solo from Swan Lake. Son has a more compact body type that was better suited for this lesser-performed Odile variation. Again, it’s about choices.

Overall, the level of the men is truly impressive and exciting. All of the Japanese competitors have excellent elevation and dance with a soft, feline quality. The Cubans tend to have fabulous bravura. Each man has superb turns, double tours, and double assembles.

 

Variation – On observing one of the competitors’ daily technique class, held at Belhaven College, in one of their new studios:

Christopher Fleming (accompanied by Steven Mitchell) gave a fabulous, energetic and quick-moving class. While perhaps not entirely accurate, I'd classify it under the Balanchine-influenced category. Lots of tendus, building to, as Fleming himself said, those done "...at the speed of light." Quite a bit of time was devoted to center work, beginning right away with a turning combination (rélevé into attitude, tombé pas de boureé to fourth, pirouettes in attitude, pas de boureé en tournant, repeat.)

It was interesting to observe the cultural differences amongst the dancers. Some readily embraced all the combinations, a few were lost, some tried what was new to them, while others did what was familiar or what they needed to do.

One class I watched included some exceptional big jump combinations. The instructor allowed time for 16 fouettés for the women and tours a la second for the men. Class concluded with entrechat quatre to relevé sous-sus and entrechat six for the women and tours en l’air for the men.

Coda:

The camaraderie of audience members, built by this shared experience, was nothing short of military boot camp – you come out feeling like buddies. My seat-mates – side, forward, and back – really got into it, including trading stories, enjoying jaw-dropping performances together, and engaging in good-natured ballet-trivia contests.

In touring and learning more about Jackson and the area, I was utterly charmed by the Eudora Welty house. In fact, so much so that I’ve gone out and purchased a couple of her books. Welty is probably Jackson’s most well-known homegrown gal; a Southern writer and a true dame. She describes honing her skills of observation – astute listening and watching.

Like Welty, I was all eyes and ears during my all too-brief and exciting stay in this once-every-four-years eye of the balletic storm, the USA International Ballet Competition. I am very much looking forward to perhaps alighting in Jackson again four years from now and greeting old and new friends alike with a hearty “Hey!”

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