Why Do Pro Dancers Still Enter Competitions?
As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.
"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."
Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.
Enhance a Slow Year
Simply joining a company does not mean you will be dancing the roles you want. There may be time spent understudying or standing in the corps. "Some dancers have times when they have not been cast well," says John Meehan, chair of the jury for the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. "They need a goal, and a competition can give them the incentive they need."
Katherine Barkman, here with Joseph Philips, won silver at USA IBC and Varna IBC this summer. Photo by Ron Fung, courtesy Barkman
Prove Yourself in a Principal Role
Competing can give you a chance to work on repertoire that would typically be beyond your rank. During her first season with San Francisco Ballet in 2016, artistic director Helgi Tomasson invited Natasha Sheehan to compete for the Erik Bruhn prize. The experience gave Sheehan, then 17, her first crack at Giselle, along with a contemporary pas de deux by Myles Thatcher. She won at Bruhn, and wound up reprising the contemporary piece at a gala the following season.
Get More Exposure
Competitions are a see-and-be-seen event, and a win can give you name recognition. "A competition can get your name out there, make you more known," says Sheehan. "Other directors gave me compliments, and it helped build some bridges." Even noncompeting partners get to be seen by several directors at once, which could lead to guesting and other gigs.
Broaden Your Dance Community
"A competition is a chance to get out of your dance bubble," says Meehan. The opportunity to see other styles and network with peers from around the world can give you a new perspective on your work.
Get More Feedback
"All dancers need mentors," says Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, artistic director of Ballet Manila and coach to Barkman. "No matter how experienced you are, you need someone looking at you when you rehearse or perform." A competition can be a way to get more input through additional coaching and mentoring.
Sure, you could win money—first place in Moscow comes with a $30,000 prize. But even if you don't medal, you can earn respect. For Barkman, the reward of overcoming the challenge in Moscow and then winning silver medals at USA IBC and Varna IBC this summer was personal. "I know some professionals might join a competition for money or to have a big career boom, but it is the event itself that inspires me," she says. "The months it takes to prepare, the networking, honing my abilities as a budding artist—it is all about pushing to step outside of my comfort zone to find more artistic growth."
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Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
We knew that Ivo van Hove and Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker's production of West Side Story would challenge our preconceived notions about the show.
But a recent Vogue story gives us a taste of just how nontraditional the Broadway revival will be. Most notably, van Hove is cutting "I Feel Pretty" and the "Somewhere" ballet, condensing the show into one act to better reflect the urgency of the 48-hour plot. (The choice has been approved by the West Side Story estate, including Sondheim, who has "long been uncomfortable" with some of the "I Feel Pretty" lyrics.)
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