My Week in Japan, Courtesy YAGP

November 26, 2013

The future of ballet depends on a pool of talent constantly flowing into the profession from all over the world. I got to see some of that pool—ocean, really—as a judge at Youth America Grand Prix in Tokyo last week. So, with the tunes of ballet variations from The Sleeping Beauty, Esmeralda, and The Talisman still in my head, I will say something about my wonderful time in Tokyo, hosted by YAGP Japan.


I’m not the typical judge

My fellow judges joked that this was my “virgin” experience with YAGP. I’ve served on plenty of jury panels, but usually for choreography, not for ballet technique. And this was revelatory because I discovered that the other judges, all of them directors of internationally known ballet schools or companies, had a different way of looking than I did. They have to keep the future in mind in a very practical way.



As you know if you follow my blog, I have immediate reactions to dancers’ performances. I can swoon over a dancer’s beautiful way of moving,  get irritated over her or his shortcomings, or be curious about their paradoxes. I respond to the dancing spirit, to the way dance emerges from both body and soul. Is it as natural as breathing? Does it express joy? Melancholy? Inner conflict? To me, dance is infinite in its range of expression.


But in listening to my fellow judges talk about a dancer who touched me, I would hear, “That dancer doesn’t have good feet,” often shortened to, “no feet.” And I’d have to realize that I hadn’t even noticed the feet. I suppose that is partly because, although I trained in ballet, I became a modern dancer/choreographer. I look at the intangible movement quality, before the tangible body parts. In reviewing the list of finalists that our two jury teams chose, I can see that the dancers who were technically strong did better than the ones with beautiful port de bras.


Pre-competitive division, ages 9–11.


These kids do not slouch

The extraordinary thing about the Japan competition was that almost every single young dancer—and there were about 700 of them—had an open chest and pulled up torso. In class, they had incredible concentration and a pride that was moving to see in dancers so young. And no, they didn’t all have ideal proportions for ballet, which is, after all, a Euro-centric art form. This did not matter to me at all, but I learned that it was a big consideration for school directors, whose task it is to provide future dancers for a company’s repertoire. I had the luxury of being able to react purely on my immediate impressions.



Babes on Pointe

What I found appalling was that many 9- and 10-year-olds performed their variations on pointe. They could barely get up there, and a couple times a foot would cave in and looked like it would crack. Astonishingly, they could actually do the hops on pointe required by some of the variations. My colleagues explained this by saying the students are taught mainly their variation, without solid training. It reminded me of how some public schools “teach to the test.”


I was happy that one of the two 9-year-old winners wore ballet slippers. She found the ground underneath her, and performed better than her more ambitious peers (or likely it’s the teachers who are ambitious in putting their students on pointe too early). I hope her success was a message to the teachers to keep their kids in soft shoes until they are ready.


Leigh Rowles, of Australian Ballet School, captures the students’ avid attention.


Testing for the future

Some of the school directors took things into their own hands—literally. Marek Rózycki of the State Ballet School of Berlin, took aside 15 or so young girls during the scholarship auditions. Working off to the side of the stage, he performed a series of hands-on manipulations to test hip rotation, suppleness of feet, and spine alignment. He told me he didn’t want to be surprised when one of these talented kids came to his school and their technique was way out of whack. Unfortunately, one of my favorite girls, who had a luscious head/arm coordination, failed his test and was not offered a scholarship. I fervently hope this girl will find another place to dance because she was a total natural.


Ethan Stiefel, director of Royal New Zealand Ballet, leads class.


To spot or not to spot

I noticed that many students, in their variations as well as in class, did not spot in the way I usually think of it, snapping the head around last. And yet when they could turn well, for instance Yuki Hagiwara, who took first place in the Women’s Classical category, they turned slowly and beautifully.


In discussing this with my colleagues, I learned that not all teachers these days (in any country) teach spotting the way I learned it. I asked ABT’s Gillian Murphy and Ethan Stiefel, now director of New Zealand Royal Ballet—two formidable turners—how they learned about pirouettes. After trying out a few turns, they both said, “I can’t turn if I think about it.”


Gillian Murphy teaching. Hey, is “juicy” a French ballet term?


Observing classes

I watched snippets of classes taught by Gillian; Leigh Rowles of the Australian Ballet School; Tadeusz Matacz, head of Stuttgart Ballet’s John Cranko School; contemporary choreographer Carlos dos Santos; and Jay Jolley of the Royal Ballet School. Each one had the rapt attention of the students.


The interpreters, naturally, didn’t translate the French terms that all ballet students know, but only the English words. But when Gillian, teaching in her understated yet inspiring way, said, “Make this plié juicy,” the interpreter did not translate “juicy” into Japanese. She said very loudly JUICY. Was this an English word they understood, or did the interpreter think it was a French ballet term? Some day, I will find out.


Two people I enjoyed getting to know: Leigh Rowles of Australian Ballet School, and Alexei Kremnev of the Joffrey Academy of Dance


The contemporary category

Although YAGP is all about ballet, Larissa Saveliev, the force behind the 15-year-old competition, always includes some contemporary. Since the contenders in this category were among the oldest (16 to 19), they looked more mature, more full-body in their expression. I was impressed with the range of styles and complete commitment. Some of these solos were terrific.


YAGP overall

I came away with two strong impressions: the dedication of school directors to train ballet dancers in sound ways, and the discipline of the young Japanese competitors.


As huge as the sea of Japanese talent is, it’s only one country where YAGP roams. Others are Mexico, Brazil, the United States, and the recent additions of Belgium and Argentina. Stay tuned for the finals in New York in April.


Click here to see a list of winners—though it does not name the many students who were offered scholarships by various school directors. Click here to see YAGP competitions live streamed, in Japan and elsewhere. And, a fun bonus: click here to see a video of the boy who wowed everyone with his astounding bravura and charm—Daichi Ikarashi. He’s 11, but last year, when this video was shot, he was only 10. The next Baryshnikov?


Awards ceremony: (From lef) Larissa Saveliev, Alexei Kremnev, a winner in the Junior category, choreographer Toru Shimazaki and me.


All photos are courtesy of YAGP Photography.