Cesar Corrales and Tamara Rojo in Corsaire

To hear the screaming throngs of teenagers, you might think this was a Beatles concert in 1964. But no, it's dance students from all over the world joining together for the Youth America Grand Prix's gala at Lincoln Center, excited to see some of the greatest stars in dance today. Their rafter-shaking enthusiasm was heartening to hear, as they will no doubt become the performers, teachers, donors and audiences of tomorrow.

Actually, every single dance was a "best moment." In the first half of the YAGP gala, dubbed the "Stars of Tomorrow," 11 young dancers from the United States, Argentina, Portugal, Czech Republic, Japan and China displayed their outsized talents in solo variations. The young audience responded to the astounding turns and jumps that kept coming and coming.

Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro in Wheeldon's "Carousel," all photos Siggul/VAM

But the audience also yelled for Act II: "Stars of Today," with fewer spectacular turns and jumps. When Tiler Peck (a 2016 Dance Magazine Award recipient) appeared onstage in Carousel, one knew instantly that we were in the presence of an artist. As she wound toward and away from her partner, YAGP alum Zachary Catazaro, every corpuscle of her body was expressive. Her head and upper body drifted and swayed beautifully with the Gershwin music, making Christopher Wheeldon's choreography look like it was spun from her heart. Catazaro was the perfect partner for the Carousel narrative—charismatic, a bit dangerous, a bit too close.


Brittany O'Connor and Paul Barris in their "Besame Mucho"

For a complete change of pace, ballroom champions Brittany O'Connor and Paul Barris (both of whom I have co-judged with at YAGP) dazzled with their tango-cum-ballet routine Besame Mucho. To accentuate her leggy versatility, O'Connor wore one ballroom shoe and one pointe shoe. To music played live by Delaney Harter on violin and William Healy on piano, Barris threw O'Connor into some breathtaking corkscrewing spirals.

Marcelo Gomes choreographed a fun solo with bursting leaps called Tous Les Jours II. Xander Parish, the noble Brit at the Mariinsky Ballet, had visa problems, so American Ballet Theatre's James Whiteside stepped in for Parish, learning it in one day. He gave the solo precision, energy, and a goofy sense of humor.


Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer in Messerer's "Spring Waters"

Two YAGP alums who are now on the rise at ABT—Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer—almost carried off the tricky Spring Waters perfectly. This is a Soviet-era warhorse choreographed by Asaf Messerer with heroic hurling and lifting—including that famous one-handed lift where the guy's arm looks like the stem of a statue. Brandt's reckless hurl was worthy of Plisetskaya, but the one-armed lift got off to a bad start. Brandt seemed to collapse as they prepared for it—but Shayer made a quick save and raised her high up anyway, just in time to rush triumphantly off stage left.


Evan McKie and Svetlana Lunkina in Dawson's "Swan Lake" pas de deux

Evan McKie, the National Ballet of Canada star (and member of Dance Magazine's Advisory Board) blew in backwards in David Dawson's tutu-less remake of the White Swan pas de deux. McKie (last seen in NYC in Wheeldon's Winter's Tale) and Svetlana Lunkina are relatively new stars of National Ballet of Canada, he hailing from the Stuttgart Ballet and she from the Bolshoi. This striking couple brought the complex choreography alive: McKie's open chest, poetic demeanor and breathing arms made this Siegfried as sensitive as his Odette.

David Parson's Caught, with its selective strobe light, is always mindblowing. Ian Spring of Parsons Dance sprang up over and over, creating the illusion he was running or walking on air.

Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino in Arpino's "Light Rain"

I always welcome seeing Light Rain (1981), by Gerald Arpino, because it reminds me of the Joffrey Ballet's heyday here in New York. The ballet limns the edges of tastefulness with its hippy-trippy seductive duet, emphasis on the pelvis. I love the tabla-like rhythmic music by Douglas Adamz and Russ Gauthier. Lucia Lacarra has the right kind of exquisite body for this exercise in eroticism-charged flexibility.

For a rousing finale, Tamara Rojo and Cesar Corrales (another YAGP alum) dazzled with gyroscopic turns and leaps in Le Corsaire. (Rojo returned the following night at the Julio Bocca tribute, to show her super-human balances in Don Quixote.)

The Grand Défilé, choreographed by Carlos dos Santos, Jr.

The Grand Défilé, that amazing annual parade of 300 dancers ages 9 to 19, filled the stage with clever patterns and bursts of virtuosity as arranged by the ingenious Carlos dos Santos, Jr.

Completing the first half was a tribute to director/choreographer/mentor Bruce Marks, who was recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Nina Ananiashvili, with her usual charm and verve, introduced him, enumerating a few of his many accomplishments. She expressed personal gratitude for his uniting the Boston Ballet and Russian ballet stars in 1990, which gave her a rare opportunity to perform in the United States. Marks spoke about the artistry of dance. Then he raised his voice in defense of the National Endowment for the Arts, which is currently on the chopping block in the latest national budget proposal. He asked us all to stand with him in the effort to keep the NEA up and running and helping the arts. Long live the NEA and YAGP!

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The White House budget office has drawn up a preliminary list of programs it could eliminate to cut spending. And in a strike to our hearts here at Dance Magazine, it includes the National Endowment for the Arts.

This is little surprise: The NEA has been a perennial target for fiscal conservatives ever since it was launched in 1965. (Which, in perversely good news, means we already know how to put up a good fight.) But why is the NEA so often on the chopping block?

Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room was made possible in part by the NEA. Photo by Jesus Vallinas.

Argument: It's a Waste of Taxpayer Dollars

If the administration's truly looking to save money, slashing the NEA won't do much. As Metropolitan Museum of the Arts director Thomas P. Campbell pointed out in an op-ed in The New York Times last week, the NEA’s budget is "minuscule": $148 million last year. That's 0.004 percent of the total federal budget. Also known as just 47 cents per American. Or about a third of what we spend on military bands each year.

Basically, if you're looking at the big picture, it's chump change. Yet for artists who work on a shoestring budget, it can change everything.

It's been reported that the administration is aware of how negligible the impact of cutting this funding would be, but it wants to make an example of "wastes of taxpayer money."

But dismissing the NEA as a "waste" is sorely short-sighted. Looking at it from a purely economical standpoint, the money shows an incredible return on investment. Last week, a letter written by 24 Democratic, Republican and Independent senators to the President pointed out that the arts and culture sector is a $704 billion industry, or 4.2 percent of the nation’s GDP. That accounts for more than 4 million American jobs—and generates $22.3 billion in government revenue.

Axis Dance Company is funded by the NEA. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Argument: The Arts Should Be Funded by Private Donors, Not the State

In the U.S., the arts get far less government money than is typical in other countries (looking at you, Europeans). We largely rely on donors from the private sector—which makes many people believe that we should just cut out government support altogether.

But as Dance/USA reminds us, the NEA is the only organization in this country that gives money to the arts in all 50 states, bringing art to communities that might otherwise have none.  

Sure, New York City will probably always have projects underwritten by private funders (we love you! and thank you!), but can the same be said out in Beattyville, Kentucky? I can't imagine David Koch underwriting ballets in rural America. And Kickstarter isn't going to be held responsible for making sure that a significant portion of its campaigns fund projects in low-income neighborhoods.

Plus, NEA funding stimulates private investments. A rare joint statement put out by all 11 Lincoln Center organizations yesterday wrote: "Because it is so successful and its imprimatur so prestigious, every dollar the NEA contributes leads to nine additional dollars being donated from other sources." Not only does the agency collaborate with private foundations, but donors notice which organizations have support from such an authoritative source.

The NEA funds Eliot Feld's tuition-free Ballet Tech school in New York City.

Argument: The Arts Can't Be a Priority When So Much Else is at Stake

This one has been discussed and dissected and debunked since before I was born. But I will add this: Right now—when everyone only reads the news that tells them what they want to hear, when it's next to impossible to have a conversation with someone who doesn't share your viewpoint—this is when we need art most of all.

Using nuance and creativity, the arts can transport us to new worlds, show us different experiences, help us understand opposing opinions, and imagine alternate possibilities.

Dances like Paul Taylor's Company B can slyly illuminate the hypocrisy of American patriotism. Others, like Merce Cunningham's Biped, can provoke questions about our own transient existence. Or they can capture the feverish energy and egalitarian ideals of a generation, like Justin Peck's Everywhere We Go.

Yes, all three of those dances were funded in part by the NEA. And I, for one, don't want to imagine a world without them.

 

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