Inside the Prix de Lausanne

June 21, 2007

Where you don’t have to win to be a winner



Better known to dancers outside the U.S., the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland has opened doors of prestigious ballet schools to talented young students for 33 years. Noted New York ballet coach and choreographer Elena Kunikova attended the Prix in 2005 to observe classes and performances, and talk with jurors. This year the Prix takes place January 23–29.


It always snows in Lausanne the week of the Prix. Backstage at the Beaulieu Theatre, oblivious to sleet, ice, and snow, young competitors have been toiling tirelessly since early morning. When not taking a class or rehearsing at a coaching session, they practice by themselves or with their teachers or parents.


The theater, with its foyers and conference halls converted into dance studios and observation areas, appears well-suited for the competition. The vast backstage area houses offices, an infirmary, and a shop that sells dance clothes, books, and videos. There is a cafeteria on the balcony. Competitors eat, read, or take a nap.


They also talk, and the stories are swirling. A New Zealander who didn’t make it to the finals gained invitations to study in Munich and The Hague. A girl from Switzerland was cut just before quarter finals, but received offers to study at Bavarian State Ballet, Vienna State Opera Ballet, and École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower. Another young Swiss dancer made headlines in Swiss newspapers when, after being cut before the semi-finals, he was invited to study at The Royal Ballet School in London. RBS director Gailene Stock liked his proportions and personality and felt he suited the school’s style. “I will place him in the first division of upper school,” she said. “It has the right teacher for him.”


The first selection round, which consists of ballet and modern classes onstage, is the hardest and the most unforgiving. But what makes Prix de Lausanne so rewarding is that a dancer doesn’t have to qualify for the final rounds to be a winner. All participants, including those who do not make it beyond the first round, can keep taking daily classes and participate in the final class, called “The Job Exchange.” Here directors of dance schools can take a look before the “Networking Forum,” at which they will extend invitations to study to the participants they like.


During the course of Prix de Lausanne last January, I talked to jurors and teachers who shared their observations, expressed their concerns, and offered advice.


“Despite different schooling and backgrounds we had no disagreements among the jury,” said juror Irina Sitnikova, a teacher from St. Petersburg’s Vaganova Academy, “whether on training and technique, overall impression, or artistry.”


All the jurors and teachers agreed that many aspects of training appear to be missing. Jury chair Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of North Carolina Dance Theatre, was concerned with coordination of arms and legs, musicality, the use of turn-out, and the use of épaulement. “Respect the basics,” he said. “If passé is not high and not turned out, or piqué turn goes through rond, the whole jury will see it.”


Juror Matz Skoog, artistic director of English National Ballet (he has since left ENB, see “Dance Matters,” December), said he would like to see the “sense of style rather than the sense of technique, those qualities that differentiate ballet from athletics.”


The male coach Sergiu Stefanschi, a teacher from Canada’s National Ballet School, notices that young dancers, especially boys, are too obsessed with technique. “They like to turn their turns and beat their cabrioles with no difference whether it’s Albrecht or Basilio,” he said. Artistic presentation was one of the deciding factors in choosing the winners. Many technically strong participants lost points due to lack of projection. The finalists, on the other hand, showed serious promise as interesting artists.


Teacher David Allen, the director of Geneva Dance Center, thought that the competitors’ technique was not very clean. “I’d like to see more of the fifth position, correct footwork, more tidiness in how they pick up the foot from the fifth, how they finish the pirouette,” he said. His advice is to work on the overall technique, not to get stuck in the mode of one variation. “All they sleep, eat, and drink is either Aurora or Gamzatti,” he said. “But they should be able to do both.”


“What is so special about ballet—the manners, how you behave when you are a ballet dancer—it shows between steps. You want to see someone lyrical or passionate,” said Bonnefoux. “There is a way to put things together [in order] to show something personal.”


Modern dance teacher Samuel Wuersten, Holland Dance Festival’s artistic director, agreed. “The issue with young dancers,” he said, “is to discover how to put their personality into their dancing.” He was pleased to observe that ballet dancers do not have an “I-am-not-interested-in-modern-dance” attitude anymore. Using the torso, going off balance, and having good contact with the floor with the proper use of weight still present a challenge to them.


The Prix is a very special institution, and there is general agreement that Mavis Staines (president of the competition’s artistic committee and Canada’s National Ballet School artistic director) has all the right priorities. “The Prix is impassioned with education and self-awareness,” she said.


Indeed, the atmosphere at the Prix is very warm. After each round, the dancers have a one-on-one meeting with a designated juror to discuss their performance problems and level of training. Suggestions range from pointers on petit allegro to weight and hair styling.


Coaches offer corrections and advice at all stages, even outside the studio. One could see Stefanschi giving turning tips, trying to infuse one boy’s position with more character, or suggesting to another student how to develop his calf muscles. The girls’ coach, Monique Loudières, a former Paris Opera Ballet étoile and now director of École Supérieure de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower, made notes during quarter- and semi-finals for all Giselles and Raymondas she coached the day before, and delivered her corrections backstage right after the rounds.


“Of course you can’t expect one to go to a competition without a wish to win, but you have to be philosophical about it, and have initiative and courage,” advised Skoog. “That would set you aside and demonstrate that you are a dancer with capacity. The benefit of the competition is actually being there, comparing yourself to other dancers of different nationalities and schools, being seen.”


Elena Kunikova is a ballet coach, choreographer, and dance writer based in New York and London.