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The Olympics of Dance - an overview of international dance competitions (also Visual Glossary entry on 1st arabesque)

by Marian Horosko
August 12, 2008
Many cities all over the world
Editor's note: As this article goes to press, the Beijing Olympics are in full swing. It is an appropriate time to reflect on the dance opportunities for the youth of the world to come together in friendly competition.
This is the time of year when decisions have to be made by pre-professional ballet dancers, 11-18 years-of-age, their teachers, parents and coaches. They must decide what variation their contestant will perform and where they will register in the international competition world. The awards of medals, cash, scholarships or contracts to internship at national regional companies are available via a jury decision, if the contestants are not eliminated during the three days of classes and performance. The daily classes given by internationally known teachers are sometimes a bigger draw than the performance of the variations.

Male and female contestants are required to perform a variation (from a classical work and a contemporary one) for judgment before a distinguished jury of artistic directors, former dancers and choreographers. Most trials are held early fall with finals at the end of the year. The young dancers are given age-appropriate choices from the vast legacy of classical dance not under copyright, by the competition committee and usually receive a disc for the acceptable tempo of the work. A photo of the entrant in 1st arabesque is required (standing on right leg, right arm extended with profile toward the right arm; left leg is raised behind waist high with left arm above the extended leg). This pose tells us about your training: the trunk or pelvis must be held equally and upright for stable support; the elongated arms front and above the raised leg behind should appear equally high; neck long; shoulders down and head in profile facing the extended right arm.

The enrollee brings his own disc for the contemporary portion of the contestant's performance. This is the portion of the performance where the dancer, teacher, coach or choreographer sometimes choose a weak, embarrassing, unsuitable or unprofessional work that disqualifies the contestant. Most teachers are not choreographers, nor are the students experienced sufficiently to master this requirement that makes evident the dancer's ability to perform in contemporary style. Good, short variations have been created for this contemporary portion of the competition such as those by Rudi Van Dantzig in the Netherlands, Maurice Béjart and a few others. Some contestants succeed in this category by acting out lyrics by famous singers. Some are hilarious, some full of angst.

Preparation for the performance of the classical work is usually accomplished in weeks of practice with the student's teacher, or a well-known coach, if one can be afforded. The variations last 30 seconds to 1 minute and the jury looks for interpretation of the work, not for athleticism.

This year, the U.S. International Ballet Competition at Jackson, Mississippi, included winners of the Rudolf Nureyev prizes. They were from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Hungary, Japan, Belarus and Russia…some of the best schools. The Youth America Grand Prix travels across the nation and to South America to encourage and find possible contestants for their finals in New York. They accept the performance of an ensemble work of up to 16 youngest dancers from a school. These works are frequently fanciful, imaginative and amusing.

The American Ballet Competition held in Miami, is one of the newest competitions, while the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland is one of the oldest and probably the most prestigious. The New York International Ballet Competitions provides scholarships and medals. None of the winners are automatically given a contract into a company unless the artistic director finds the winner a suitable "fit." It does, however, give acclaim to the school from where the awardees came. Several small competitions call themselves international but do not strictly fit that category.

Almost every major city in Europe and Russia has a national competition yearly or bi-yearly. The latest is in the newly re-formed Croatia in Belgrade. These winners are awarded scholarships to the academies of other countries or enter their local opera-ballet companies. Several years ago, a small international competition in Varna, Bulgaria had a young winner…Russian-trained teen-ager, Mikhail Baryshnikov, who astounded the dance world with his energy, form and charisma. Sixteen-year-old Carlos Acosta, from Cuba, burst upon the scene at the Prix de Lausanne.

How do our 6,250,000 American students in our 27,036 studios (Department of Labor statistics) fare in competitions? They are outnumbered as winners by Asians, Russians, and South Americans, although many enter the trials. There are local scholarships and some support for the 8-year pre-professional development period. But our weakness is in technical training and coaching against other countries that support the arts as part of their educational system and employ accredited methodologies in the teaching. Another fault frequently attributed to the underdevelopment of our talent: lack of discipline. But that's another story.

Unlike athletes, at this time, there is no known performance enhancement drugs used by dancers, although the dance world suffered through a period of hallucinogen use in the 1970s.

There are some perks for an audience here: attending the final performances of competitions, where you can speculate, predict and enjoy the performance of future professionals from throughout the world. You can applaud or lament at the final presentations of medals, certificates and scholarships. The cost of admission is reasonable. Check with the listings of competitions
on the web. New York theaters where finals are held include the Rose Theater at the Time-Warner building, City Center, Skirball and smaller houses in Manhattan.
Here's Cesar Morales of Chile and partner Ludmila Pagliero of Argentina being coached in Bournonville's 'Kermesse in Bruges' pas de deux by Eva Kloborg of the Royal Danish Ballet.  Morales won a Gold Medal, and Pagliero received a Silver and the Igor Youskevitch Award (a one-year contract with ABT) in 2003. Ludmilla is now with the Paris Opera Ballet

Here's Cesar Morales of Chile and partner Ludmila Pagliero of Argentina being coached in Bournonville's "Kermesse in Bruges" pas de deux by Eva Kloborg of the Royal Danish Ballet. Morales won a Gold Medal, and Pagliero received a Silver and the Igor Youskevitch Award (a one-year contract with ABT) in 2003. Ludmilla is now with the Paris Opera Ballet

Photo © & courtesy of Marbeth


Daniil Simkin, in playful 1st arabesque, is soon to be a soloist at American Ballet Theatre this year.

Daniil Simkin, in playful 1st arabesque, is soon to be a soloist at American Ballet Theatre this year.

Photo © & courtesy of Gene Schiavone


Dancer in 'Swan Lake' in 1st arabesque with arms as choreographed for the role.

Dancer in "Swan Lake" in 1st arabesque with arms as choreographed for the role.

Photo © & courtesy of Gene Schiavone

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