Eyes Behind the Prize

July 15, 2007

Bruce Marks offers a jury chairman’s perspective of the USA IBC.



Beginning June 17, the USA International Ballet Competition will host 121 young dancers from 27 countries for two weeks of intense artistic rivalry in Jackson, Mississippi. Among the medals, cash awards, and scholarships this year are one-season contracts to Miami City Ballet, Boston Ballet II, The Washington Ballet Studio Company, and Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley. But as jury chairman Bruce Marks said at a recent press conference, USA IBC doesn’t always give away every award—they must be clearly deserved. “This is about artistry. We are going to reward artists,” he said.


Marks, Boston Ballet artistic director emeritus and interim artistic director of Orlando Ballet, took some time out before the start of the competition to offer insight into what goes on behind the quest for Jackson gold.


Dance Magazine: What do you do as USA IBC Jury Chairman, exactly?

Bruce Marks:
My duty is to steer. I always begin with a pep talk about what we’re looking for.


DM: You pick each jury member yourself?

Yes, and I’m terribly cautious. I’m not monolithic—I love suggestions from other people—but it can be disheartening for young artists to go to Helsinki [IBC] one year, then go to Nagoya [International Ballet and Modern Dance Competition], and then come to Jackson and see exactly the same jury faces—faces that may have rejected them. So I have some new jurors this year who have never done this before.


DM: You assemble your panel, they watch the performances, and then what happens?

They vote, vote, vote.


DM: Is the scoring broken down at all?

There are competitions where you score [each aspect of a dancer’s performance] individually and then put the scores together. I find that really unnecessary. I know—as a ballet director, teacher, coach, choreographer—when I’m seeing someone dance whether or not that person could be a principal dancer in one of the fine ballet companies of the world. I don’t say “2” for line, “2” for musicality, “4” for taste. I know if that’s someone I want to see again. I’m 70 years old; having been in this business for 55 years, having run two companies, now a third—if I can’t tell, then I’m in the wrong line of work.


DM: So it’s one number for each dancer from each judge.

Yes. Four years ago, I instituted a ban on discussion of the artists in the jury room before the jurors vote. I said to them, “There are people among you with very strong opinions, who are very articulate and who might sway you. I don’t want a consensus, I want your opinion. After we look at the points, then we can talk”


DM: And what kind of dancer merits the top score?

They have to be musical; they have to have good line; and in the end, they must have taste. When they’re doing Giselle and their leg is over their ear in developpé a la seconde, that’s not what I think Giselle is.


DM: Are there any other pet peeves among the jury?

The lapses of taste are the main thing. Technically, these kids can do a lot of stuff, and that’s exciting. It’s how they do it that’s more important.


DM: Is “taste” difficult to evaluate in the contemporary pieces in Round II?

That’s a tremendous problem because for some people, “contemporary” means lots of pirouettes and grand jeté splits with an occasional contraction thrown in. We’re not going to get rid of a wonderful dancer because they come from, say, Sofia, Bulgaria and they’ve never seen a modern dance piece before. But it’s very hard not to judge choreography. We try to be specific in the rules: It’s not “modern ballet” we’re looking for, it’s modern-dance-influenced choreography.


DM: Has ballet technique evolved in the 15 years since you became chairman?

Well, over my career, I’ve seen huge differences in almost everything, from line to turnout. It’s the same difference we’ve seen in the Olympics, where any little girl today in the swimming competition can beat the men’s record from the 1930s. The kids dancing today have beautiful legs and feet; they do seven pirouettes stopping on half-pointe. They’re so beautiful. I’m lucky I’m not auditioning now, I’d never be able to get into a company. My awful line, my God.


DM: So the comparison to the Olympics doesn’t bother you?

Oh, I don’t care about that. As long as we’re giving medals to artists and not just to jumpers and turners. Most of our dance critics think it’s a terrible idea, a ballet competition. They keep saying it promotes bad taste. The Gina Bachauer [International Artists Piano Competition] on the other hand, doesn’t seem to promote bad taste in their minds. Or the trade art shows that brought us the great French Impressionists.


DM: Well, it’s a valuable experience for the dancers.

I hope so. I coined a phrase for Jackson—“the process is the prize”—because I think getting prepared, meeting other young dancers from around the world, making friends, and supporting each other is the real prize. There are a few who get mean and nasty and berate me if they don’t get a medal. But I always tell them, don’t make it about the medal, make it about what you could learn here. Look at other dancers, talk to their coaches, make decisions—do you prefer this style or that style—but definitely learn something while you’re here. For most of them, they will not go home with what they want. But if they focus on what they’ve learned, they have gone home with an award.


DM: What about the judges? Do they have a good time?

We try to go out, enjoy each other’s company. Usually everybody knows at least two or three other people in the jury; I’ll know a lot of them, but not all of them. So we make new friends. And they take such wonderful care of us at Jackson—we’re all so pampered. The whole town really steps out.


DM: Pleasures of Southern hospitality aside, what would you say is the true benefit of competing at the USA IBC?

I believe it’s a life-changing experience for young dancers. They come away—I hope—better members of our art form. And I hope they carry that with them for the rest of their lives. I think many of them do. www.usaibc.com.


Kim Okamura, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer, is a freelance journalist living in Los Angeles.


USA/IBC: The Dancers’ point of view

“Make your worst rehearsal good enough to be proud of putting onstage.” —Simon Ball, junior gold medalist, 1994. Now a principal with Houston Ballet.


“I remember after performing Giselle I walked out of the theater and a coach that I did not know said, “You are the best. You will win.” And I did!” —Haiyan Wu, senior gold medalist, 2002. Now a principal with Miami City Ballet.


“Any competition is a turning point. Even if you don’t win, people see you and it leads to contracts and promotions.” —Yury Yanowsky, senior silver medalist, 1994. Now a principal with Boston Ballet.


“Do it for the right reasons—to compete against yourself. Be your best self and try to improve your own personal game.” —Rasta Thomas, senior gold medalist, 1998. Recently starred in Movin’ Out.


“I never would have been able to do as much guesting without IBC USA. That gold medal on your resume is an instant connection.” —Adrienne Canterna, junior gold medalist, 1998. Now with Complexions.


“IBC USA changed my whole life—professionally and personally. Edward Villella offered Luis Serrano and myself contracts at Miami City Ballet after Jackson. And after working together, Luis and I got married! That was five years ago.” —Katia Carranza, senior bronze medalist, 2002. Now a principal with Miami City Ballet.