By Liesl Ferreira
It’s not a surprise that in this highly competitive era, competitions have also made their way into the ballet world. Still, I only recently became aware of their existence, and was quite frankly, shocked. What is left in this society, I thought, that has escaped the curse of being scored? What will happen to those who dance because their souls compel them to do so if they never succeed in “winning”? I know artists and I know athletes, and what drives each of them to perform could not be more different.
I have always thought of ballet as one of the purest art forms in the sense that it has been minimally touched by commercialism, popular culture, and, (I mistakenly thought) competition–all things that have a tendency to erode the quality of art. So, my knee jerk reaction to these competitions was one of disappointment and disdain. However, as I dug a little deeper, I discovered there were, in fact, some very valid arguments in favor of the competition experience. I won’t say I was exactly swayed, just left more confused than ever.
Ballet competitions are a business. Among the many, four competitions stand out for their prestige and reputation:
The International Ballet Competition (IBC) takes place yearly in cities throughout the world. Pre-professional (ages 15-18) and professional (ages 19-26) must be invited to participate and can hope to win medals, cash, scholarships, and contracts.
The Prix de Lausanne (Prix), based in Switzerland, selects dancers ages 15-18 who are prepared to enter the professional ballet world. This competition awards varied scholarships to esteemed international ballet schools and companies. Their holistic approach to the dancer sets the Prix apart. Participants undergo thorough health examinations before they are allowed to compete, and Prix winners are followed to ensure they continue their academic education.
The New York International Ballet Competition (NYIBC) is held every two years at the Lincoln Center in NYC. Pre-professional dancers (ages 17-24), compete as couples. The NYIBC is different than the others in that it only announces the repertoire when the dancers arrive in NYC three weeks prior to the event.
All dancers learn and rehearse the variations with the same teachers under identical conditions. Medals are awarded and certain winners may receive contracts with professional companies, such as the Joffrey Ballet.
The Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) distinguishes itself by the wide age range (9-19) of its dancers, the aim of which is to discover new talent of any age. The YAGP was founded by former Bolshoi dancers, Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev, who after immigrating to the US, envisioned an event in which they could see dancers from around the country as they were formerly able to do at ballet “festivals” throughout Russia. The judging criteria of the YAGP is based not on where the dancer is at the time of the competition, but rather where the judge sees the dancer five years from that time. Although medals are awarded, scholarships to renowned dance academies such as the Royal Ballet School, are supposed to be based primarily on a dancer’s potential.
Undoubtedly, the exposure the competitions offer to young dancers is invaluable. A dancer might not have the opportunity to be seen by representatives of ballet schools and companies from around the world any other way. Dancers appreciate the chance to polish their performing skills, and often have the chance to learn classical variations that they would not normally learn until much later in their mature careers. Being awarded a scholarship to the right school can make a career.
The debate over whether competitions are beneficial to ballet began as extreme technique moved front and center. Dancers now vie to impress judges with multiple pirouettes, or other such difficult elements, as the competition performances become more and more focused on mastering advanced technique. Some believe that dancers pushing the technical envelope in this way is a positive development for ballet– if one dancer sees another dancer do something technically outstanding, he/she will want to try it as well, which advances the technique of the art form as a whole. Others contend that as technique becomes increasingly emphasized, artistry suffers.
Dancers train to perfect passages for competitions instead of learning entire performances, and somewhere in this process their artistry is lost. Critics claim that rising up through the corps de ballet, and working in a company is what nurtures a dancer’s artistry. The competitions appear to be producing a generation of technically proficient dancers who go on to be cast in roles they are not artistically ready for. Many say that’s not good for the dancer, or the art.
While the integrity of the major competitions is most likely sound, what seems potentially problematic to me, are the standards of the many smaller ones. Will they also judge on artistry and potential, or will the dancer who performs the most fouettés of the day, be awarded first prize? Will the studios, which consistently produce competition winners, even at the expense of the dancer as a whole, grow in popularity while the studios who keep the bigger picture in mind struggle to find students? Will children who love to compete be drawn to ballet when they might be better suited to a sport? Whether reshaping ballet to fit into this culture will prove to be a good thing or not, remains to be seen.
Liesl Ferreira is a native of the Bay Area who developed a passionate interest in the arts while living in Paris for more than a decade. She believes that the arts belong everywhere, in every life, and that the ability to express our humanity, or be touched by an expression of this humanity, is inherent in us all. She devotes her life to her family, photography, and Iyengar Yoga. Liesl is a wonderful volunteer with Diablo Ballet.