Jumps soar higher and higher. Legs fly up to ears. And pirouettes routinely come in four—and more. Audiences gasp with excitement, and standing ovations are now standard fare. Is this the Olympics, the circus, or just ballet in the era of competitions?
Critics, dance teachers, artistic directors, and competitors had ample opportunity this year to debate the impact of competitions. The recently concluded USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson witnessed more virtuosity than ever before. So have renowned European competitions like Varna and the Prix de Lausanne, and newer competitions like Youth America Grand Prix.
While competitions are venues for discovering exciting young dancers, they are also a controversial topic among ballet’s major players. The number of pirouettes a dancer does is quantifiable; how she flirts with her fan in Don Quixote is immeasurable. Judges confronted with Kitri variations need some basis for consistent evaluation. And this may explain why extreme technique has moved to center stage.
Artistry lies at the heart of the debate. Competitions emphasize perfecting excerpt, not sustaining an entire performance. Steps are divorced from character or the piece’s meaning. Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet director Marcia Dale Weary feels many dancers who focus on learning variations for competitions are sacrificing artistry for technical prowess. She believes young dancers benefit more from being in the corps. “Working with other dancers as a team is what’s necessary to artistic development,” says Weary.
Nevertheless, many young dancers who compete say they learn a lot, and it polishes their performing skills. Seventeen year-old Rock School student Kara Haraty entered her first competition, Youth America Grand Prix, this past year. “In preparation, my teacher, Natasha Bar, would coach me almost every day for an hour, having me rehearse my variations over and over until every last detail had been corrected,” she recalls. While Haraty, who placed second in the senior women’s contemporary division, admits competing can be stressful, she felt the experience helped her achieved a new facility. “I surpassed my limits,” she says.
Not every teacher has Weary’s approach, either. Stanislav Issaev, chair of the dance department at South Carolina Governor’s School of the Arts and a well-respected competition coach, believes competitions help popularize ballet. “If a dancer sees someone do something technically amazing, and wants to do it too, that advances the art form,” he says.
Bo Spassoff, president and director of Pennsylvania’s Rock School, is proud of his five students who won medals at the USA-IBC. “Today’s dancers are amazing artists, and the technique bar has gone higher,” he says. He believes this has made ballet a richer art form. “In some cases, more is more exciting,” Spassoff says. “Dance is extremely compelling now because people can do different kinds of things.”
When judging competitions, he looks for a combination of exceptionally clean technique and the ability to do things other dancers can’t. “Judges are not unimpressed by that,” he says. But he also says that he looks for what “grabs him” in a dancer. “Maybe it’s their high jump or their exquisite artistry;” he says. “Hopefully it’s a combination of both.”
Sixteen-year-old competitor and Rock School student Isaac Hernandez, who won the Junior Mens gold at USA-IBC, sees no conflict between technical achievement and artistry. “You try to achieve the cleanest technique possible, but artistry has to be there, too,” he says. Hernandez feels that it’s important to know ballet history, to look at videos of other dancers, and to play with the choreography to “make it your own.”
But other teachers, and even artistic directors, have some of Weary’s concerns. Do competitions’ emphasis on technique reach into the realm of professional performance? “Competitions are scary,” says Francis Perron, managing director of New York’s Studio Maestro. “It’s like the Olympics. Judges are looking for technical skills, and that hurts artistry.” He has had students ask him, “If I can’t do tricks, will I be able to get a job?”
Perron’s unease strikes a chord with other teachers and coaches. “In my realm people are sacrificing artistry for technique,” says Henry Berg of The Ballet Studio in San Francisco. He often sees technically gifted dancers pushed into roles they aren’t artistically ready for. “The technical thing is very important now,” he says, “but it’s more a minus than a plus for dance.”
Former American Ballet Theatre principal Susan Jaffe, who has judged Youth America Grand Prix competitions and co-directs the New Jersey School of Ballet in Princeton (CHK), feels that while technical ability in today’s companies has soared, the level of artistry has suffered. She remarks on our cultural affinity for bigger, better, and more, as a quantifier of American success. “It’s a ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ mentality,” she notes. To an audience, a dancer who can perform quadruple pirouettes must be a better dancer than the dancer that does three. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that dancer is an artist,” says Jaffe. “And young dancers have to be careful not to think that extreme technique is the goal.” She believes dance is all about the “wow factor” now. “When I’m watching the kids scream as a dancer goes into a huge panche at YAGP, I think it’s lovely, but there’s so much heart energy missing.”
Artistic directors, who often attend—and judge—competitions, must walk a fine line. Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, has both competed and judged. “The whole competition thing is overrated,” he says. He’s skeptical of dancers who roam from competition to competition in search of prizes. Like Weary, he fears that once they’ve won, they won’t want to rise through the ranks. “Being in a company is a process. You have to function in a group; it’s not just about dancing a solo,” he says.
None of this is to diminish the importance of good technique. “You have to focus on technique to make the body usable,” says Weary. But the soul is also important. “Once dancers move from their souls and feel the music, they’re on their way. There are some bodies that are only passable onstage, but they make you feel more, and that’s what dance is all about.”
Nancy Alfaro is a writer and former dancer who lives in New York.