Youth America Grand Prix
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
April 17, 18, 2013
Finals; Gala (“Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow”)
-- by Jerry Hochman
I don’t like ‘competitions’. Particularly with respect to the live performing arts, I don’t believe that they are a satisfactory measure of artistic ability. Perhaps it’s appropriate to consider evaluating technical ability on a one-shot basis, like an athletic contest, but artistic ability is different. I wanted to crawl under my chair when, while killing time awaiting the judges’ arrival for the Youth America Grand Prix “Finals,” the host for the evening announced ominously that these dancers’ entire careers depended on what would happen on stage that night.
But that’s just me. Whether one likes them or not, competitions in the arts have a long and celebrated history, and when you have one that’s run as comprehensively and as efficiently as Youth America Grand Prix runs its annual competition, you can overlook imagined ethical concerns (is it fair?; is it unnecessary pressure?; does a 12 year old's potential career depend on it?), and focus instead on a few simple observations: the size and scope of YAGP’s reach is enormous; the participating student performers seem to love it, win or lose; and the talent on stage, from 12 year olds to 19 year olds, defies belief. Mix that with one of the better annual galas, and you have to concede that YAGP is not just a competition but a formidable international talent search engine.
Founded 14 years ago by Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev (Mr. Saveliev is a former soloist with American Ballet Theatre), YAGP tries to accomplish multiple goals, and largely succeeds. First, it is an audition/exposure mechanism. The process gives young students the opportunity to learn about different ballet schools and to be seen by school representatives, and for these schools to recruit students they might not otherwise have an opportunity to see. Second, it is an experience/education opportunity. Young dancers gain the experience of competing in the context of an indisputably collegial atmosphere and of performing before a sold out New York theater, as well as an awareness of ballet’s history and scope that they might not otherwise have received during their training. And third, and not least, is the opportunity it provides for association. The networking opportunities for students, parents and teachers, both in a professional sense and in terms of simply getting to know their peers (whether students, parents, or teachers) with similar talents and dreams from another school, or another part of the country, or another part of the world, are incalculable, and the camaraderie that appears to develop belies any sense of cutthroat competition. [At last year’s competition winners were announced backstage, behind the curtain, in advance of the gala, and the audience could hear the winners being celebrated enthusiastically by the other finalists. This year the process was different and winners were determined at some point prior to the gala; instead, the gala audience was treated to screams of glee from students in the rings as they cheered the performances of the winners.]
So what does the audience get out of this (at least, the part of the audience not affiliated with a school or related to a student performer)? Aside from the grin-inducing sight of a small army of tiny and not so tiny bunheads lugging ballet bags bigger than they are, you get to see precocious talent. A lot of it. And the possibility of getting a first look (or at least a first look for a New York theater audience) of a dancer you might see several years down the road dancing with a major company.
I attended two YAGP programs this year: the ‘Finals’, and the “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” Gala, on April 17 and 18 respectively.
The individual Finals were divided by age (12-14 and 15-19) and subdivided by gender, and overall featured some 83 young dancers. [There were other competition categories as well: pre-competitive (girls, ages 10-11), ensembles, and pas de deux – none of which were included in the ‘Finals’ program.] By my unofficial count, there were 24 judges consisting of representatives from every major ballet company and ballet school, including at least two company artistic directors who had performed with ABT: Nina Ananiashvili and Julio Bocca. There was no discussion that I’m aware of as to how the judges arrived at their decisions, but based on what I saw, it had to be extraordinarily difficult to objectively select one over another. [And with so many representatives of so many companies and schools evaluating, judging, and recruiting at the same time, there may also have been a secondary competition – that of the schools competing with each other to recruit particular dancers.]
Be that as it may, YAGP seems to deliberately play down the significance of medaling – I’m aware of no general announcement of medal winners, and the ‘Stars of Tomorrow’ portion of the gala the next evening not only did not include all the medal-winning dancers, it included some dancers who did not appear to have medaled at all.
Following opening remarks by Host Mark Walberg, who was as effervescent as the dancers, and a smashing instrumental performance of "Carmen Fantasy" by young violin protégé Elli Choi (who looked to be about 10), the gala evening segued seamlessly to the precocious talent of the youngest of the dancers: Lada Sartakova (Russia) performing Clown Variation, and Daichi Ikarashi (Japan) dancing a variation from Don Quixote. Mr. Ikarashi won the “Hope” medalist (the equivalent of the Grand Prix) in the pre-competition category, and Ms. Sartakova won the Silver in the same category. Each is 10 years old. Each spins like a top. Each brought down the house.
The next young dancers, both from Brazil, were Maria Clara Coelho, age 14, who won the Silver Medal in the Junior Women category and performed a scintillating dance titled Magalenha, and Adhonay Soares Da Silva, age 15, winner of the Bronze Medal in the Senior Men category, who danced a variation from La Fille Mal Gardee. They were followed by the Grand Prix winner in the Junior Women category, Giselle Bethea (USA), 13 years old, dancing a Variation from Esmeralda. Jimchang Gu (15), from the People’s Republic of China), 15 years old, who does not appear to have won a medal, performing My First Modern Dance.
The winners of Gold Medals in the Senior categories performed next (there were no Grand Prix winners in either of the Senior categories this year): ethereal Lou Spichtig (Switzerland), age 15, dancing a Variation from Giselle, and Joo Won Ahn (Republic of Korea), performing a Variation from Swan Lake. This was followed by what was touted as the ‘first ever’ pas de deux with a ‘Star of Tomorrow’ matched with a ‘Star of Today’: Jorge Barani (USA), age 20 (I’m not aware of his having won a medal), and Maria Kochetkova (San Francisco Ballet principal), dancing the pas de deux from Flames of Paris. Mr. Barani looked polished and poised, and talented enough to be recruited directly into a major company. The evening concluded with the annual Grand Defile, choreographed by Carlos dos Santos, Jr., which was a rousing presentation of all of the over 250 YAGP participants.
Individual medal winners who did not perform in the gala were: Pre-Competitive – Gold - Martina Prefontaine (11; Canada), and Bronze - Bella Kirby (11, USA); Junior Women – Gold – Mei Nagahisa (12, Japan); Bronze – Soo Bin Lee (14, Republic of Korea); Junior Men – Grand Prix – Gabriel Figueredo (12, Brazil); Gold – Daniel Alejandro McCormick-Quintero (13, USA); Silver – Yuki Nonaka (13, Japan); Bronze – David Preciado (14, USA); Senior Women: Silver – Rachel Richardson (16; USA); Bronze – Katherine Higgins (16; Belgium); Senior Men: Silver – Leonardo Basilio (19, Switzerland).
The second part of the gala evening, ‘Stars of Today’, was a potpourri of dances performed by an equivalent potpourri of star dancers, each of which was preceded (and one succeeded) by a brief video introduction. For this viewer, there were two indisputable highlights.
Partita No 2 in C Minor (J.S. Bach), a pas de deux choreographed by Emery LeCrone, is simply wonderful. The presentation, part of the “Emerging Choreographer’s Series,” is not the first ballet choreographed by Ms. LeCrone (she has been ‘emerging’ for some time), but it is the first dance choreographed by her that I’ve seen. Performed by NYCB principals Teresa Reichlen and Tyler Angle (and accompanied by Vassily Primakov on piano), whose precision, delicacy, and luminosity enhanced the same qualities in the piece, Partita No. 2 is lyrical and choreographically varied, unusually polished, and it gently warms the viewer’s eyes like the sight of a Spring sunrise. If I could describe it in detail I would, but I was too busy enjoying both it and the performances.
Ms. LeCrone has many connections with New York City Ballet (her last name is the same as a current NYCB dancer, but I do not know if they’re related), as well as other New York companies, and is already well-respected. If there’s a way to do it, I would strongly encourage NYCB to add Partita No. 2 in C Minor to its repertoire.
The gala’s other highlight, the balcony pas de deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, suffered a bit from being out of context and without the usual set (as well as from some blown lighting cues). Nevertheless, you could hear a pin drop while Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Gomes danced (a miraculous accomplishment given the vocal and celebratory audience) – a tribute to the Prokofiev score and the MacMillan choreography, but also to the magnetism that Mr. Gomes brings to everything he performs, and the novelty (for New York) of seeing Mr. Gomes and Ms. Gilbert dance together. I suspect that New York has not seen the last of it.
Mr. Gomes was also represented by the U.S. premiere of his Tous les Jours, a solo piece performed by Chase Finlay (a principal with NYCB). The work is a co-production of YAGP and the Mariinsky Ballet, and had its world premiere, with Mr. Finlay performing, on March 10, 2013 as part of the Mariinsky Festival.
The dance, to a composition by Karen LeFrak, has a simple theme – frustration with doing the same thing every day (“tous les jours”); feeling imprisoned; and wanting to escape to something different. The visual mechanism for the expression of this theme is a dancer and a barre to which he is figuratively chained, to which he returns day after day, and from which he dreams of breaking loose. The frustration finally boils over, and at the end of the piece Mr. Finlay, having returned once again to the barre, overturns it as if he were overturning a desk at an office.
It’s not a particularly ambitious theme, or a novel one, but Mr. Gomes has filled it with controlled but passionate visual images, like a series of choreographed mini-explosions, which are expressed in multiple ways and directed both inwardly and outwardly. My only problem with Tous les Jours was accepting the premise that Mr. Gomes or Mr. Finlay would ever sense such frustration, or succumb to it – but that’s probably just frustration envy.
A similar theme, showing perhaps a less destructive way of expressing the need to escape daily routine, was in Take 5, the piece that opened the second half of the gala. Choreographed by Fredrick Earl Mosley to Paul Desmond’s well known jazz composition (“Take Five”), Take 5 converts the significance of the title of the score from being a compositional quality (quintuple meter), to the more colloquial meaning of ‘Take Five’ – a brief rest from work. As performed by Clifton Brown to a live jazz ensemble (and a starry night sky), the expression of the Desmond music that Mr. Brown performs is a perfect break – breathing fresh air, letting off steam – before beginning (or returning to) the day’s work routine. Very well done.
There is no denying Wayne MacGregor’s ability as a choreographer, or his accomplishments. But his Borderlands Pas de Deux, which was given its New York premiere at the gala, is all angles and manipulation and contortion, all raw emotionless movement and fury, signifying either nothing – or, if it is meant to represent anything, is representative of the testing of barriers between the parties to a potential relationship before the borders that separate them are crossed. It was brilliantly performed by Ms. Kochetkova and Lonnie Weeks (San Francisco Ballet), and I admired their extraordinary athleticism and physical dexterity (Ms. Kochetkova in particular), but not much else. For all the heat that the dancers appeared to be trying so hard to generate, the choreography insulated the electricity that the audience should have been seen and felt, leaving only entangled but inexpressive bodies, and it left me cold.
On the other hand, Double Bounce, an abstract piece choreographed by Peter Quanz to music by David Lang, and performed by Viengsay Valdes and Osiel Gouneo of the National Ballet of Cuba, while perhaps not particularly memorable, was nevertheless a lot more audience and dancer friendly. With a ‘theme’, if you will, of playful expression (‘double bounce’ referring to the way the particular tutu worn by Ms. Valdes contracts and rebounds when it is contacted by another force), Double Bounce looked different enough from moment to moment to maintain visual interest, and was easy to watch and enjoy. The opportunity to see the vibrant and effusive Ms. Valdes and Mr. Gouneo, two highly regarded Cuban dancers, was a treat.
In the video introduction to her performance, Svetlana Lunkina (Bolshoi Ballet), who danced the ‘Nikiya Monologue’ from La Bayadere, said that with ballet ‘the feelings are much more important’ and the dancer’s obligation is ‘not just to dance it, but to live it’ – exactly the quality that, to this viewer, makes a great ballet performance great. Her solo was infused with this feeling, this quality of inhabiting a character. But as finely nuanced as it was, it was perhaps overly sensitive to the point of being mannered, and concluded on a ‘high’ (presumably after Nikiya received the basket of flowers that concealed the murderous snake) that sounded, out of context, like an upbeat folk dance and destroyed the mood that Ms. Lunkina was so carefully trying to convey.
Every gala, it seems, must have a piece d’occasion, and for this gala it was Swan – a co-performance of “The Dying Swan” by Ms. Ananiashvili and L’il Buck. Ms. Ananiashvili still has the glorious liquid swan arms; L’il Buck has liquid hands and feet. But aside from being performed to the same music, and aside from the artistic affection the two of them apparently have for each other, the two portrayals, to this viewer, didn’t work together, and each was diminished as a result. I’ve seen Ms. Ananiashvili dance a swan before (though not The Dying Swan), and she’s fabulous. I’ve also seen L’il Buck do his Dying Swan (at the New York City Center 2012 “Fall for Dance” Festival), and although it’s not my cup of tea, I could appreciate L’il Buck’s artistry. But when performed together (at times concurrently; at times consecutively), the result looked like an attempt to mix oil and water.
The evening ended with a performance of the Pas de Trois from Le Corsaire, by Misa Kuranaga (Boston Ballet principal); Herman Cornejo (ABT principal), and Alejandro Virelles (Boston Ballet soloist). They all did a fine job, but to this viewer they looked subdued – particularly Mr. Virelles as Ali, who appeared to be overly careful and nowhere near as expressive or flamboyant as he needed to be. Perhaps he and Mr. Cornejo should have switched roles.
Obviously, the performances at this gala represented a broad sampling of dances and dancers, rather than a blast-by-blast series of explosive but familiar pas de deux performed by familiar dancers. In this sense the gala reflected the broad scope and inclusiveness that comprises the competition aspect of YAGP. Whatever one thinks of competitions, YAGP has successfully demonstrated that it is more than 'just' a competition.