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Ninth Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize

by Kate Snedeker

March 5, 2011-- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto

In a few weeks, it will have been twenty-five years since the untimely death of the brilliant Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. However, his memory shines on brightly in the performances of the young dancers who have had the honor of competing for the prize established through a bequest in his will and bearing his name. In this, the ninth competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize, Maria Baranova of the Hamburg Ballet and Joseph Gorak of the American Ballet Theatre were the winners of the performance awards, while the Stuttgart Ballet's Demis Volpi received the choreographic award. This is the first time a dancer from the Hamburg Ballet has won one of the Erik Bruhn Awards. For the first time, audience choice awards were handed out, and were awarded to the Stuttgart Ballet's Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo, and NBoC's Robert Stephen.

In order of competition

Royal Danish Ballet - Shelby Elsbree and Jón Axel Fransson (Flower Festival in Genzano pdd and Meron Nigron by Louise Midjord)

For what must be the first time, the Royal Danish Ballet sent two dancers of non-Danish origin. However, while Fransson was born in Iceland, he received all his training at the Royal Danish Ballet School, a ballet heritage obvious in his fast beats and gently elegant epaulement. Elsbree came to the company by way of the School of American Ballet, having been on of the first dancers selected by Nikolaj Hübbe for the company. A petite blond, she has a youthful sweetness and solid technique, but a still-developing sense of the Bournonville style (in particularly she had some very odd moments with the positioning of her back leg in attitude). An intensely challenging, but unflashy pas de deux, the Flower Festival in Genzano pdd was a perfect selection for this couple. They had a sweet chemistry that suggested the shyness of young love, but were very much up to the technical challenges of a piece that keeps both dancers on stage (almost?) the entire time. The long-limbed Fransson has attracted a lot of rave reviews in Copenhagen, and this performance made it clear why. While his double tours had a tendency to be a bit under-rotated, he has understated elegance, musicality and magnificent pirouettes. His multiple pirouettes were beautifully balanced, allowing him to balance in releve before gently closing down into fifth, all in perfect timing with the music. (And, frankly, much more impressive than the bravura display that followed which was completely divorced from any artistic or musical context.)
Louise Midjord's "Meron Nigron", set to klezmer music, is the story of young love. It starts with the young man, in simple brown pants and shirt, dancing around his partner, silent on the floor. She eventually "wakes" and joins in the dancing, her long brown skirt amplifying the motion. Midjord's choreography combines angular, contemporary motion and hint of traditional folkdance. It's successful at times, with enough interesting moments to warrant further viewing. Yet while artistically it worked beautifully for the Danish dancers, strategically, it might have been better to create a piece that showed off some of Fransson's impressive jumping and turning skills. It also suffered from an unfortunately over-amplification of the soundtrack.

Stuttgart Ballet - Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo (Act III PdD from Don Quixote and Little Monsters by Demis Volpe)

The Stuttgart Ballet's Badenes and Camargo were crowd favorites for their high-flying Don Quixote Pas de Deux. There's no doubt that Camargo was technically astounding, ripping off a series of double tour -double pirouettes that seemed to go on forever and ever. Badenes' fouettes, with a many multiples thrown in - were also most impressive, though her initial balances were very brief. The pair was also nicely matched, with very secure partnering - though this version had little in the way of lifts. However, the rather unoriginal choice of classical repertory probably did not serve the dancers well because it seemed to highlight their ability to show off a few bravura skills rather than to present a fully-rounded, artistically and musically developed performance. The piece felt artistically flat, with little very little Spanish spice, little chemistry between the dancers, and particularly in terms of the very extensive re-working of the male solo to highlight Camargo's skills, little musicality. It felt like a performance one would expect to see (minus some of the technical fireworks) at a Youth America Grand Prix, not at a competition for young professionals.

"Little Monsters" was clearly well received by the judges, but felt relatively undeveloped choreographically. The selection of Elvis Presley songs was a nice change from the classical music, and brought out a more playful side to the dancers. The piece opened with an extended section where the dancers arms, brightly illuminated, wavered and flowed up and down. It's fascinating at first, but wore thin after a while. Overall it was enjoyable, but felt very embryonic in terms of choreographic skill. There's an unique voice there, and it was much more memorable than some of the later pieces, but not one that seemed yet worthy of the overall award.

Hamburg Ballet - Maria Baranova and Kiran West (Act II PdD from Giselle, Chopin Dialogue by John Neumeier)
In contrast to the previous couple, the Hamburg Ballet's couple challenged themselves by dancing the rather melancholic Act II pas de deux Giselle. It's a long piece with little change in the musical pace and few breaks for rest (as with the Bournonville pieces). West was a late non-competing replacement for the injured Alexandr Trusch, but you would have never know it from Baranova's assured performance. Her dancing is expansive, with a beautiful flow and stretch. Experience will undoubtedly add depth to her interpretation, but it was already touched with a mature elegance.

John Neumeier's Chopin Dialogue was a wise choice to compliment Giselle, exposing not only Baranova's long lines, but her ability to tackle more contemporary choreography with as much mature confidence as she does classical pieces like Giselle. The piece was hardly Neumeier's strongest, but certainly the most mature of the contemporary choreography. Hence, I strongly suspect that there was an unwritten agreement to select one of the four younger choreographers for the choreographic award.

The National Ballet of Canada - Shino Mori and Naoya Ebe (Bluebird PdD from Sleeping Beauty and Passacaglia by Robert Stephen)
The home favorites, Mori and Ebe, were the the most ebullient and personable of the performers, and were blessed with a well-selected repertoire. Though Nicholas Georgiadis' costumes are over-the-top gaudy (these are bluebirds, not peacocks!), the dancing was simple and superb. The Canadians dancing is perhaps a bit unfinished, but Ebe in particular sails across the stage. His back is not the most flexible, but his series of jumps across the stage didn't decrease at all in amplitude or precision, as is so often the case when Bluebirds tire. Mori is delicate, but powerful.

Robert Stephen's Passacaglia, set to music of the same name by Handel & Halvorsen, was beautifully choreographed for the the personable NBoC dancers, though for this critic, the length of the evening unfortunately meant a decreasing memory for new choreography.

American Ballet Theatre - Christine Shevchenko and Joseph Gorak, PdD from Act II of La Sylphide and Divergent Connectivity by Nicola Curry

This very talented couple from ABT suffered from a poor choice of classical repertory, but benefited from Nicola Curry's delightful contemporary piece. While certainly companies other than the Royal Danish Ballet have successfully danced La Sylphide, it's not an easy task for those without years of experience in the Bournonville style. Neither ABT dancer looked at home in the style, and the mime, in particular, was very blurred. ABT's version may be different from RDB's, but regardless of the version, the mime is central, and one got the feeling that the dancers were simply repeating what they were taught, rather than having any real understanding of the mime's meaning. At RDB, I have heard dancers refer to mime in terms of what "they are saying", not what they are doing - and here it seemed to be a case of doing, not saying. Shevchenko has a delicate spring to her jumps, but she never seemed to flow across the stage or create the feeling of an ethereal creature, and Gorak looked a bit sluggish in the solos. It's also unfortunately that the ABT costume for James uses a particularly hideous tartan with socks the same colour as the ballet slippers. So much of Bournonville is in the feet, and when the feet blend into the legs, it makes the dancing look less precise. The pair also seemed very out of synch in the final sections, detracting from the overall image.

However, Nicola Curry's pdd, Divergent Connectivity, brought out the best in the two dancers, and, one suspects, tipped the favor in Gorak's direction. While this critic confesses to having little specific memory of the piece, it left an impression of controlled power. Gorak is not a tall dancer, but elegantly proportioned, and the piece showed not only his crisp technique, but solid partnering skills and a fine control. The choreography was also some of the strongest of the evening, revealing a new choreographic talent.


The NBoC performed Balanchine's Theme and Variations during the judging intermission. The company's green hued costumes are relief from ABT's pink things and the Royal Ballet's brown, be-wigged monstrosities. Piotr Stanczyk's turns continue to amaze and Elena Lobsanova, the 2009 women's prize winner, made a fine debut in the lead role. The corps was a bit sloppy in the finale, but all in all, it was an energetically pleasing performance.

Overall it was a pleasant evening with a strong cast of dancers, and a menu of contemporary choreographic contributions that was far stronger than in 2009. The enthusiastic audience made for a very exciting, dynamic evening, and one hopes to see the competition continue in 2013. The choreographic award has been a welcome addition, but the audience awards are an experiment that didn't seem to quite work. There was no option to vote other than by text, and votes could only be sent during a very, very short break between the contemporary piece and Theme & Variations. And, though certainly it's n small feat to host the competition, it would be nice to see the competition be hosted by a different company for it's tenth anniversary. Perhaps this would be an excellent time to take the competition to the country of Bruhn's birth.

Bravas and bravos to all the dancers.

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