Youth America Grand Prix
New York, New York
NYU’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
Competition Semi-Final Round (April 12, 2015)
David H. Koch Theater
April 15, 2015: Finals Competition
April 16, 2015: Gala: “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow”
April 17, 2015: Gala: David Hallberg Presents “Legacy”
-- by Jerry Hochman
It’s spring in New York, finally, and when spring happens, so does the Youth America Grand Prix. For the past 16 years, YAGP has brought together not only sylvan streets of budding bunheads, but also a potpourri of teachers and coaches, school administrators, ballet moms (and dads), dancewear salespeople, professional dancers, well-heeled culture mavens, and hangers-on to witness the assemblage of, and competition among, roughly 1200 young dancers -- probably more in one place at one time than can be found anywhere else in the world. It’s not only a competition – it’s also part convention, part classroom and coaching opportunity, part scholarship award program, and part international ballet reunion. And while the program is not without flaws, many of which come with big competition territory, overall it’s a remarkable event.
Aside from six days of competition (five days of ‘semi-finals’ at New York University’s Skirball Center, and a ‘final’ round on Wednesday at Lincoln Center), the festivities included two galas: YAGP’s annual “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” on Thursday evening, and a program on Friday evening, introduced by American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal David Hallberg, titled “Legacy,” in which dancers representing the companies that nourished Hallberg’s professional development performed. Although many of these professional performances were executed brilliantly, by far the highlight of the two galas was the magnificent performance by the Mariinsky Ballet’s Ekatarina Kondaurova in the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Diamonds.
Above all, YAGP is a celebration of young talent. Seeing a small army of baby ballerinas and the considerably smaller battalion of young danseurs (as I wrote last year, these male dancers are treated like rock stars by their adoring female counterparts) marching to and from venues in the Lincoln Center area to attend classes or rehearsals prompted even jaded New Yorkers to stop and stare. But it’s not just their number. The caliber of these young dancers is so high it’s scary – and it helps explain why the population of excellent young professional dancers has exploded beyond the ‘usual’ national and regional companies. To fulfill their potential and perform, these dancers have to go somewhere. Since the ‘major’ companies cannot take everyone otherwise qualified, the result has been a national and international qualitative as well as quantitative boom, benefitting not only the dancers, but audiences that have the opportunity to see superb dancers in local venues.
The young men and women individual ‘finalists’ (120 junior women; 22 junior men; 110 senior women; 77 senior men – by my unofficial count), selected from ‘preliminary’ competitions involving some 7000 young dancers in 15 U.S. cities and in countries in Asia, Europe, and South America, are divided into male and female groups based on age: a ‘pre-competition’ level, a ‘junior’ level (ages 12-14), and a ‘senior’ level (ages 15-19). The finalists (although they are considered ‘finalists’ in terms of preliminary competition achievement, once they hit New York they effectively are ‘semi-finalists’) in each level must perform an excerpt from a classical ballet, as well as a contemporary solo. In addition, there are categories for ‘pas de deux’ and ‘ensemble’ dances (the word ‘ensemble’ encompasses groups large enough to populate a major city). Judges drawn primarily from ballet schools rank each dancer’s performance in multiple respects.
From these ‘semi-finalists’ are culled the ‘finalists’: this year, the top 25 junior women, 10 junior men, 20 senior women, and 19 senior men. The reason for the discrepancy in the number of ‘final finalists’ is unexplained; perhaps all who ranked above a certain numerical threshold. These dancers performed in the ‘final’ round at Lincoln Center on Wednesday evening.
In previous years, I noted that the dancers were so good that I could not fathom how the judges could rank them. This year, even though I was only able to attend one of the semi-final rounds, I decided to see how my evaluations would fare against the professionals. I loosely ranked those dancers I saw (senior women, dancing contemporary pieces) based on the overall impression I had of their performances. As fine as they all were, I found I could distinguish those who I thought performed on a somewhat higher level. To my surprise, most of the dancers I’d determined to be exceptional made it to the final round. On the other hand, deciding among the finalists in the final round was tougher, particularly with the junior women, so many of whom performed at an extraordinarily high level.
The junior women’s grand prix winner (the only grand prix awarded this year), Shin-Yong Kim from the Republic of Korea, exemplifies this extraordinary level of achievement. The combination of the overall quality of her execution, coupled with her phrasing and musicality, yielded a performance of a variation from Esmeralda at Wednesday’s Finals that was jaw-dropping, and so incompatible with her unaffected and sweet offstage demeanor that it was difficult to believe that Wednesday’s scintillating performance came from the same person. When the awards were announced, no one in the house seemed more genuinely shocked than this somewhat shy-looking 14 year old. Following the awards ceremony on Thursday afternoon, I happened to be within steps of her in the DHK Theater lobby where she met two adult women, one of whom loudly proclaimed: “You won! You won!” And this little dancer just smiled a huge, disarming smile, still looking somewhat dazed, as if the thought of ‘winning’ had never crossed her mind, and she still didn’t believe it.
There are other sides to this too, of course. There’s instant celebrity: I watched as the first place senior woman was interviewed for Japanese television on the Lincoln Center steps – already, apparently, a national personality. And there’s agony: As I left the theater, I saw one young contestant sobbing in her mother’s (or her coach’s) arms, most likely because the results didn’t’ meet her dreams. But all this is a microcosm of what performance life is, and should not detract from the sense of camaraderie and accomplishment that YAGP provides to all the contestants, and the opportunity it provides to a fortunate viewer to see the secure (and exponentially developing) future of the art form.
As YAGP repeatedly emphasizes, it may be a competition, and there may be awards, but it’s not exclusively about winning. Before announcing the competition winners, scholarships were awarded – primarily to promising younger dancers whose technical and performance abilities are most malleable at this stage. The presenters, representing more than 25 ballet schools, both independent and affiliated with major companies, awarded close to 300 scholarships, including short term, long term, and summer intensive, as well as junior company or apprentice contracts. Even though there were several duplications, these scholarship winners filled the stage. And most significantly, these scholarships are not awarded solely on performance criteria, as is the case with the ‘winners’. Scholarship presenters take other factors (e.g., class attitude and achievement – as well as particular needs the school might have) into consideration as well.
Many of these young dancers, including several who did not ‘win’ trophies, made strong impressions, not only for the quality of their execution, but for a degree of personal magnetism and warmth far beyond their years (they weren’t all stoic ice princesses or princes merely executing steps). Though it’s tempting to single out several here, doing so would be inappropriate and unnecessarily cumbersome – although I note that the South Korean contingent, as well as that from the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program, provided what appeared to be a disproportionate number of outstanding young contestants, and the group of young girls from Portugal, like last year, should have won a medal based on overall cuteness alone. Suffice it to say that I will remember them, and will look forward to seeing their professional performances in the years ahead.
A complete list of finalists is available on the YAGP website, but the ‘winners’ include: Junior Women: 3rd place – Yeojim Shim, Rep. of Korea; 2nd place – Kotomi Yamada, Japan; 1st place (tie) – Juliette Bosco, USA; Maggie Chadbourne, USA; Grand Prix – Shin-Young Kim, Rep. of Korea. Junior Men: 3rd place – Ryu Bautista, Australia; 2nd place – Yago Guerra, Brazil; 1st place – Liam Boswell, USA (a Chase Finlay lookalike). Senior Women: 3rd place – Bianca Scudamore, Australia (who delivered a knock-out contemporary dance); 2nd place – Rio Anderson, USA; 1st place – Yu Kurihara, Japan. Senior Men: 3rd place – Lang Ma, USA; 2nd place – Austen Acevedo, USA; 1st place – Shogo Hayami, Germany.
As an event, and all things considered, the program ran quite smoothly. But there are some areas for improvement. It still feels wrong that administrators from ‘independent’ schools are included as judges of competitors from their own schools. While any favoritism can be cancelled out by the sheer number of judges, there is an appearance of impropriety that can easily be avoided. And the criteria that the judges consider in evaluating these young dancers, and the weight given to the contemporary vs. ballet dances, should be made clear – if not announced, then in the programs.
Most obvious, and most critical to me, is that attempts should be made to avoid unnecessarily scaring, or scarring, these children. Comments by overly glib masters of ceremony like ‘their lives will be changed forever’ or that ‘some contestants will win scholarships that may determine the rest of their lives’ is unnecessary hyperbole that can only negatively, and unnecessarily, impact those who are not given scholarships or who did not win trophies. And the annual recitation of the huge number of YAGP ‘alumnae’ dancing with major companies is fair comment, but no effort is made to relate these alumnae to the winners. If there is any connection between winning a place in the competition and professional success with a company, that should be emphasized. Otherwise, the number of YAGP alumnae having professional careers can be seen as a mere consequence of fishing with a huge net.
Finally, the awards presentation looks amateurish. The actual competition is run well, with the disembodied voices of the persons announcing the contestants clear and apparently accurate. But the awards ceremony on Thursday afternoon was embarrassing. At the very least, the masters of ceremony should be aware that ‘Latin America’ is not a country, and the winners should be referenced both by number and name. More importantly, the names of the winners (and the judges, for that matter – how does one, at a ballet competition, mispronounce Susan Jaffe?), should be transliterated so they can be properly pronounced. And laughing over mispronouncing a winner’s name, or not being able to read some judge’s scribble, is inexcusable.
But in the overall scheme of things, these criticisms aren’t important. The young dancers are – and their abundance and quality has made YAGP the international success that it has become.
Gala: Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow
This year’s annual gala was significantly streamlined from those I’ve previously seen. The focus was on youth, and ‘new’ choreography – the few classical choreographic excursions that there were appeared to be selected to intentionally provide a stark contrast to those dances that were more contemporary.
The first half of the program consisted of performances by YAGP contestants - most, but not all, winners in their categories. The winner of the ‘Hope Award’ (the equivalent of the Grand Prix, at the Pre-Competition level), 11 year old Antonio Casalinho from Portugal, wowed the audience, which was liberally sprinkled with current and former professional dancers, with his Variation from Don Quixote, followed by an excellent performance of the Pas de Deux from Grand Pas Classique, danced by second place pas de deux winners Juliette Bosco (12) and Theophilus Pilette (15). Following a lovely and intricate ensemble piece, Jasmine, performed by 25 young dancers from the Morningstar Dance Academy of Atlanta, the solos continued with a reprise of her variation from Esmeralda by Grand Prix winner Shin-Yong Kim, Matheus Vaz Guimaraes (18) from Germany, who danced a contemporary piece called Porto Que Sinto, which was followed by the first place ensemble winner, the dramatic Danse Boheme from Carmen, exquisitely performed by 24 dancers from the Ellison School of New York. These student performances concluded with Kennedy Kallas (14) and Austin Acevedo (15) dancing a contemporary pas de deux – or pas de trois, if you include the hanging light bulb – called Who Is My Shadow (a dance not performed during the competition, but one which Ms. Kallas and Mr. Acevedo have performed elsewhere), Senior Mens 1st place winner Shogo Hayami performing Solo for Diego, and Senior Womens 1st place winner Yu Kurihara’s crystalline variation from Paquita.
The student portion of the evening concluded with The Grand Defile, an annual piece d’occasion choreographed by YAGP’s Resident Choreographer Carlos dos Santos, Jr. which somehow accommodated more than 250 students on the DHK Theater stage. Getting all these young dancers to learn a dance, any dance, in such a brief time span is extraordinary; getting the dancers to look good and the performance to be exciting to watch unfold as well is somewhat miraculous.
The "Stars of Today" portion of the program, involving professional dancers, was a mixed bag. The evening included only two classical ballet excerpts. The Pas de Deux from The Pharoah’s Daughter, danced by Bolshoi Ballet principal dancers Evgenia Obraztsova and Semyon Chudin, is a dull excerpt from Pierre Lacotte’s equally dull reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s 1862 creation. When the Bolshoi brought The Pharoah’s Daughter to New York in 2005, I was underwhelmed. Some lost ballets are lost for a reason, and even the estimable leads, Svetlana Zakharova and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, couldn’t save it. The pas de deux suffers from all the antiquated constructs that plagued the ballet as a whole: interminable dead spots, milked applause, coupled with undistinguished choreography. Indeed, the most visually interesting aspect of the pas de deux was the Egyptian artwork projected against the stage’s back wall.
The warhorse Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire, which closed the evening, fared somewhat better. Danced by ABT’s Isabella Boylston and the Mariinsky’s Kimin Kim, the pas de deux was at least fun to watch, and never dull. Compared to Mr. Kim, who, appropriately for this pas de deux, flew across the stage like a dancer possessed, Ms. Boylston looked demure and almost classy.
While not particularly memorable, the contemporary ballets were somewhat more successful. Verano Porteno, a piece by Mauricio Wainrot that was given its New York premiere, is a brief, stunning duet danced passionately and exquisitely by Paloma Herrera, who is to retire during ABT’s upcoming Met Season, and Juan Pablo Ledo of the Teatro Colon. Double Polka, choreographed by Anton Pimonov and presented as part of YAGP’s Emerging Choreographer Series, is a fun piece with a somewhat contemporary commedia dell’arte flavor. ABT’s Calvin Royal III and the Mariinsky’s Kristina Shapran were both delightful to watch perform it – and Ms. Shapran, who I highlighted during the Marrinsky’s recent season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a gem. Ballet 101, choreographed by Eric Gauthier, which also received its New York premiere, is the kind of pointless piece that critics love to dismiss, but I, and the audience, loved it. To a deadpan comic narration, the Mariinsky’s Xander Parish executed all “101 ballet positions”. If Etudes were converted to a virtuosic comic male solo and confined to small patch of stage, it might look a little like Ballet 101.
The other pieces, including two world premieres, were less successful, despite fine performances by the dancers.
Perhaps most annoying was Wayne McGregor’s Pas de Deux from Qualia, which had its New York premiere. Mr. McGregor’s dances – at least those I’ve seen – look alike, and consist of dancers manipulating and contorting their bodies in ways that look like a form of torture. I’ve seen it before. I’ve even seen the underwear/costumes before (they look almost identical to the costumes in McGregor’s Borderlands pas de deux). And even though the thrust of this piece may have been somewhat different from others (this, to me, was primarily an intense sexual encounter), any emotional message was overwhelmed by the technical histrionics. That being said, the dancers - the Royal Ballet’s Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood - were astonishing, and Ms. Hamilton in particularly deserves accolades for undergoing what must have been a painful deboning process prior to the performance.
This segment of the program opened with a passionate display of Latin Ballroom Dancing by Ballroom Champions Denys Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina, in the New York premiere of Espana Cani. But aside from the passion that permeated the stage, it had nothing to do with ballet. Emery LeCrone’s Minuet from String Quartet No. 15 (Mozart) was an earnest effort earnestly performed by NYCB’s Teresa Reichlen and Zachara Catazaro, but it was no more than that. Perhaps most disappointing was the world premiere of Windy Sand, choreographed by Alexei Kremnev to an original composition by Karen LeFrak. The music was pleasant enough, but one dimensional, and the choreography added little to it. The dancers, from the Joffrey Studio Company, looked lovely as they performed it, but the piece did not move beyond exuding a sense of…windy sand.
Gala: David Hallberg Presents: LEGACY
The final performance in this year’s YAGP programming was one of its periodic ‘special events’ – an evening devoted to David Hallberg and the artistic legacy he acquired and upon which he built his career. In terms of professional performances, and like Thursday night’s gala, it was somewhat uneven, but there were several superb performances, and one that was memorable.
Initially, however, Mr. Hallberg himself must be saluted. He curated the program, selecting an eclectic set of dances that were worth seeing even if not always successful. Of equal significance, he addressed the audience many times throughout the evening, introducing the dancers, explaining his connection to their companies, and sprinkling his remarks with anecdotes that revealed as much about him as a person as they did about him as a dancer. And unlike other gala ‘presenters’, Hallberg spoke with authority, passion, and obvious intelligence, highlighting those qualities that together comprise an outstanding ballet dancer, qualities that he acquired from his formative relationships with these companies appearing in the program and the dancers in them: American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company, the Australian Ballet, the Tokyo Ballet, and the Bolshoi. Clearly, his talents extend beyond his ability as a danseur. His ‘performance’ as master of ceremonies was one of the evening’s highlights. (Curiously, Hallberg did not recognize any nurturing he may have received as a member of ABT itself. Even more curious, a solo performance by one ABT dancer was added to the program, via a last minute program insert, seemingly as an afterthought.)
By far the finest performance of this program, and perhaps of many seasons, was Mariinsky Ballet’s Yekaterina Kondaurova in the pas de deux from George Balanchine’s Diamonds. Purists may argue that Kondaurova’s portrayal was too romantic, but I disagree. The essence of the ballerina role is not an ice princess, or a Swan Queen cousin, but regality tempered by irresistibility; perfection just beyond reach, but never beyond hope of reaching. Kondaurova not only executed the steps perfectly, but she exuded a palpable quality of radiant intensity that came from within rather than from any extraneous body movement or facial gesture – just by the suppleness of her body and the warmth in her eyes. I vaguely recall seeing Suzanne Farrell performing Diamonds, and she could not help infusing a degree of sensuality into her portrayal. Kondaurova’s performance is the closest to Farrell’s of any I’ve seen since. And when Semyon Chudin (who excelled as Kondaurova’s partner) knelt at her side at the pas de deux’s conclusion, he was not simply her cavalier, but her worshipful supplicant - as was the enraptured audience.
The evening’s performances began with an unfortunate repeat of the pas de deux from The Pharoah’s Daughter, performed by the same Bolshoi dancers, Evgenia Obraztsova and Semyon Chudin, who danced these roles the night before. Even the removal of the ‘Egyptian backdrop’, which required the viewer to focus solely on the two dancers, failed to make the pas de deux look any better. Surely these two dancers would have been able to perform a different pas de deux for this occasion - and in fact the original listing indicated that these dancers would be performing an excerpt from the recently resurrected Marco Spada. No reason was given for the programming change, which was made with enough advance notice to be correctly referenced in the program.
Much better was a solo by ABT’s Veronika Part (whom Hallberg noted went ‘in the other direction’ – from Russia to ABT). Lar Lubavitch’s Scriabin Dances is a whirling. passionate dance by a woman in black, who is at first defeated, and eventually emerges triumphant. As I’ve previously noted, no one dances pathos like Ms. Part; she was triumphant even before the choreography required her to be.
The first half of the program concluded with the dancers from the Tokyo Ballet (its star ballerina Mizuka Ueno, and seven male dancers led by Kazuo Kimura) in the U.S. premiere of Maurice Bejart’s Bhakti III. Although his reputation is secure, Bejart’s work has not received the exposure it deserves here, where awareness is often limited to knowing that his company at the time (Ballet du XXe Siecle) is where Ms. Farrell exiled herself after temporarily leaving NYCB, or to viewing his version of Bolero, which I saw in New York performed by Maya Plisetskaya and (to my recollection) his star male dancer, Jorge Donn. Bejart infused overt eroticism and sensuality (at times androgynous) into his pieces, which increased the curiosity and alienation factor, but to me he was ahead of his time.
Bhakti III is in the usual Bejart mold. I found it kitschy, but fascinating. The piece begins with the look of erotic (at last to a Western eye) tantric art, with the female deity, her back to the audience, entwined around a male deity such that he is hardly noticeable, in apparent sexual union, surrounded by lesser deities or supplicants. The ballet proceeds from there to bring this tantra to life, with the lead dancers striking familiar, iconic religious poses, then suddenly elaborating and translating the poses into passionate dance. At one point, the lead dancers temporarily separate themselves from the group, and the piece becomes a bewitching mating ritual. Bugaku cross-polinated with Astarte. Bhakti III is not an Indian dance, and doesn’t pretend to be. And it goes on too long. But, bathed in red lighting and vividly executed by Ms. Ueno and Mr. Kimura, I found it to be an interesting and beautifully performed curiosity.
The second half of the program didn’t fare quite a well. Mr. Hallberg himself commissioned a new work for ABT’s Studio Company, where Hallberg began his career, called Untitled. It’s lyrical and lovely, with costumes by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung that match the ethereal feel of the piece, and the young dancers, unnamed in the program, did a fine job with it. The ballet seems to strain for some meaning – particularly as the dancers assemble in a beautiful heap when the piece ends – but there isn’t any. It looks nice, but goes nowhere.
The Australian Ballet was represented by Amber Scott and Rudy Hawkes in the U.S. premiere of Unspoken Dialogues, choreographed by Stephen Baynes. The dancers executed beautifully, with Ms. Scott being particularly impressive, but the unspoken dialogues that comprise the pas de deux – essentially mixed-messages that cause the relationship to ebb and flow and push and pull depending on the man’s level of interest in any given moment – look as unsatisfying, choreographically, as the meaning they’re supposed to convey.
The evening concluded with a bevy of six Mariinksy dancers, led by Ms. Kondaurova, in another U.S. premiere: Choreographic Game 3x3 by Anton Pimonov. While it’s somewhat enjoyable to watch the dancers having fun with it, the piece is superficial, and leaves no lasting impression.
I have mixed feelings about dance competitions, as I’ve noted in previous years. But YAGP is not significant because it’s a prestigious competition – though many consider it that. It’s a force, as much about propulsion as recognition. Major ballet companies hold auditions around the country, and have outreach programs that attempt to ferret out young dancers who may not have access to privileged schools. But none, to my knowledge, is as comprehensive as YAGP. It’s a ballet search engine of sorts, gathering potential professional dancers, and potential stars, from ballet schools located in worldwide nooks and crannies – and I don’t doubt that YAGP’s global reach will continue to expand in the future. And while I may complain about the absence of quality in many of the ‘new’ dances, I wouldn’t expect anything less from an organization that, although indebted to ballet’s past, has its feet firmly planted in ballet’s future.
My apologies for the delay in this posting, a consequence of illness.