And the winners are....
Choreography: Matjash Mrozeski
Male: Cory Stearns, ABT
Female: Elena Lobsanova, NBoC
(I will admit outright that I was cheering for the Danes - it is a competition, so it's hard not to have favorites.
It was a nice evening. I found the Danes and the couple from San Francisco Ballet the strongest in the classical pas de deux. The ABT couple and the Stuttgart couple had the misfortune to dance the same pas de deux, one right after another.
The contemporary pieces, for the most part, I didn't find particularly inspiring. I thought that Marcelo Gomes' and Bridget Breiner's pieces were pleasant, but choreographically simplistic. Gomes' piece, I found the most weak because it wasn't really that contemporary - she was a in full romantic tutus, the deep purple-red very reminiscent of "In the Night" - the impression was of "In the Night" light. The idea, I presume, is to see the dancers in two different styles, and Gomes' ballet, pleasant as it was, was too similar to the classical pas de deuxs.
Mrozewski's winning piece was nice enought, but it came last, and by that point, for me, it had blended into the rest by then.
The one that stood out was Ian Rowe's very modern piece for the two young Danes. In the contemporary pas de deux, he was the only choreographer not to put the woman en pointe. It was a short piece involving a tempestous relationship and two chairs. I felt that it showed off the Danes' ability to tell a story, but had some weaknesses, the primary one being the long stretch of non-dance in the beginning. The choreography also gave some really impressive views of Alban Lendorf's considerable talent. He has a lot of power and height, and it might have played more in their favour to create a piece that better highlighted his abilities.
The Stuttgart couple was probably the weakest of the bunch. Moore is tall and elegant, but they both noticeably tired in the pas de deuxs. Buriassi was a more convincing black swan, despite the slightly odd Cranko (?) choreography, but seemed very stiff from what appeared to be an attack of nerves in the first half of the classical piece. She almost fell out at the very beginning of the fouettes, but gutted it out to make (or almost) make the 32 with a few doubles thrown in. He tried to push to hard into his turns in second and ended up finishing very slowly and out of balance.
Nerves seemed to be an issue with Cory Stearns as well - his win seemed a bit surprising considering the stiffness in his Black Swan Pas de Deux solos. He is an impressive dancer, but I thought his style was a bit forceful and lacked the maturity of Anthony Spaulding or the fluidity of Alban Lendorf.
Among the men, I sensed that many needed to learn to pace themselves. Noah Long, Spaulding and Moore all got trouble or barely avoid it when they started a solo with a huge jump or pirouette, but then got unbalanced or quickly tired.
I didn't know what to expect from the Danes - I've seen both of them dance, but only in the back of the corps. They were most definitely the youngest (18 and 19)and newest to a professional company - both are in their first year in the RDB corps). Lendorf has been getting rave reviews from the press back home, and while he is certainly still a James in the making, I was very impressed with his solos. The contrast of the La Sylphide pas de deux with the other pieces highlights the challenge of judging such a competition - how do you compare the flashy Swan Lake and Le Corsaire pas de deuxs with the romantic La Sylphide and Giselle pieces. For instance, the male lead in La Sylphide does primarliy beats and double tours, whilst I don't think I saw another male dancer do a single beat in the classical section. And while Le Corsaire and Swan Lake highlight turning ability, there's barely a pirouette in La Sylphide.
Guswiler is very delicate, and had a few little bobbles, but like Lendorf, she's been beautifully schooled in the Bournonville style. What for me made their performance so beautiful - and I think was only equally by the San Franciscans - was their story telling ability. Their mime is impeccable and while not quite as powerful as others in the company, much better than most ballet dancers in the world. Guswiler also has gorgeous fluidity in her arms.
The ABT couple - Stearns and Boylston were powerful and precise, but I thought that the German couple had more nuance. As I said before, Stearns looked like he had a case of the nerves in the classical piece, but those were gone by the contemporary pas de deux. If my counting was accurate, she didn't make the 32 fouettes, but ended in control. Among their strengths was an ability to project, no doubt a skill learned on the stage of the vast Met Opera House. Both have a powerful solidity that was not at all highlighted by Gomes' contemporary piece; it would have been lovely to see her demi pointe and the two of them given something edgy to sink their teeth into. I'd love to have seen them been choreographed on by Iain Rowe or Matjash Mrozewski.
Doris Andre and Anthony Spaulding from San Francisco Ballet were the most elegant of the dancers, and their Giselle pas de deux very polished. Their choice of classical pas deux was probably the most challenging, but they seem very comfortable dancing together, and both have a maturity beyond their years. Impressively, they were able to keep a stead flowing, finding that fine line between nervous speed and excessive caution. Caniparoli's piece was quite forgettable, and I don't think this helped their cause.
The Canadians were probably helped (and perhaps more nervous) because of home advantage. Their selection of repertoire was probably not ideal - their are only so many Le Corsaire's one can see in a lifetime, and though Mrowzewski is talented, I thought his contribution would have been stronger if it had been a bit shorter. When in doubt, cut it out! Lobsanova is lovely, and certainly was worthy of the award. Without a doubt full of talent, Long wowed it the tour de chats (pas de chat with a single turn...not sure if this is the correct term), but less strong in the pirouettes. I blinked at that point, but I think he had to put a foot down to press up from the first bent-knee pirouette. He has glorious lines, and I wonder if another choice of pas de deux would have better highlighted his strengths. La Bayadere comes to mind, or perhaps something from Coppelia.
Overall, I was very impressed by the partnering skill of all the dancers. Though the technical level was high all around, there did seem to be some weaker entrants.
I would have probably have leaned towards Anthony Spaulding or Alban Lendorf for the male prize, though that may be in part because I'm less a fan of the very forward, bravura ABT style and prefer the delicacy of Giselle or Bournonville.
Of the women, I thought Guswiler was wonderful, but perhaps still unfinished, and both Andre and Lobsanova excellent.
With Keichi Hirano not dancing, we were treated to an excerpt of Matthews' Dextris rather than Veer. The excerpt was danced to taped music, and it works MUCH better without the choir. The focus in on the dancers, and with the plain back backdrop highlight the dancers, it is much more interesting dance-wise. It also seems to work better from orchestra level - perhaps another instance where a choreographer needed to think about the impact for audiences looking down at the dancers (a significant portion of the audience in a theatre), not just those at stage level who seem the dancers directly against the backdrop. Here I think the costumes stand out much more against the backdrop (as seen from the orchestra) than the floor (more the view from above).
All in all, an impressive night of dance, if not the most choreographically satisfying.
Looking to the future, I wouldn't be against a moratorium on Swan Lake and Le Corsaire. It would be nice to see dancers look further into the classical repertoire and not just the competition warhorses. There's lots more out there - Coppelia, La Bayadere, Nutcracker, Onegin, Sleeping Beauty, plus some other Cranko, Robbins, Balanchine etc. that could probably be used.
Secondly, I think it would be nice to give the choreography contest a bit more structure. It would be nice to have a time guideline - there was a huge range in the length of pieces, and perhaps limit the competition to choreographers who have not yet had more than a couple major commissions. Or even require that the choreographer be a fellow dancer - three of the five companies commissioned pieces from dancers. Though the poor economy is probably an equal opportunity crusher, I'd think choreographers like Caniparoli and Mrozewski would have plenty of other opportunities to choreograph. Why not let a competition for young dancers, highlight up and coming choreographers.
I also am curious as to why the competition is always in Toronto. Is it stipulate in Bruhn's bequest, or is it easier to do in Toronto because there's always a slot in the schedule? If it's not stipulated in Bruhn's bequest, it would be nice to see the competition move around between Canada, the US and Europe. Not only would this give the competition a higher profile - Toronto not exactly being the mecca of dance (though people who never see the NBoC are certainly missing a lot!). Hosting the competition in NY or London or Copenhagen one year would probably draw a whole new crowd of fans. Rotating the competition would also give other dancers the chance to compete in front of their home crowds, and save the European (and Californian) dancers the cost and jet lag of long air travel.
Congratulations to the winners, and to all the dancers!