Passing the Torch: Coaching in the New York International Ballet Competition

July 19, 2007
Inside three New York City studios, 48 young ballet dancers work intensely, absorbing three vastly different pieces of choreography. Every second counts as all eyes focus on a coach. This figure—singing out counts, correcting, demonstrating, and encouraging with exclamations like “Breathe. Extend. Good!”—is giving each dancer an invaluable opportunity: A chance to shine at the New York International Ballet Competition.
At the last NYIBC in 2003, four coaches—Thomas Lund and Eva Kloborg of the Royal Danish Ballet, Roxane D’Orléans Juste of the Limón Dance Company, and Martine van Hamel, former American Ballet Theatre star (who co-founded Kaatsbaan Inter-national Dance Center and currently instructs at ABT’s new Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School)—taught a pas de deux from their respective company’s repertoire. From these luminaries, the international group of dancers, age 17 to 24, learned three technically challenging dances in less than 21 days.
Like many other competitions, the NYIBC offers dancers prestige and possible medals. (Past medalists include Carlos Molina, Jose Manuel Carreño, and Sarah Lamb.) But to learn three classic pas de deux from three entirely different idioms is unique. And mysterious. The announcement of the selected choreography comes just hours before the competitors’ arrival in the studios.
Though each NYIBC participant is judged individually, they compete in pairs. In fact, a dancer’s most important pre-competition preparation involves the selection of a partner, and couples who have performed a lot together have a decided edge. These couples must prove—to a panel of judges representing some of the most prestigious ballet companies worldwide—that they have the artistic maturity to exalt in styles as far ranging as Limón’s sweeping, grounded gravitas and the crystalline precision of the ethereal classic La Bayadère. Only those who reach the competition’s second round earn the chance to dance onstage as soloists, and with a piece of choreography that they have prepared at home.
Dance Magazine asked the 2003 NYIBC coaches and teachers how dancers can succeed in a competition that is part repertory workshop and part performance opportunity of a lifetime. NYIBC artistic director Eleanor D’Antuono said that she frequently advises the dancers, “Don’t use your maximum energy until you know what you’re doing.” D’Antuono, who became a principal dancer with ABT before she was 20 and performed brilliantly for more than two decades, speaks from experience: “There is a way of dancing full without using your entire engine and banging your body around.” This approach, she said, requires intelligence about the specific demands of choreography and an understanding of where a dancer can relax in the body during the learning process.
Martine van Hamel, who performed versions of Marius Petipa’s
La Bayadère
for 25 years, echoed D’Antuono when she explained that approaching this “most classical” and “most revealing” of dances is “a lesson in work habits.” Van Hamel said that when learning the “scarf dance,” where the lead executes multiple arabesque turns on pointe, the initial reaction from dancers is always, “This is impossible!” But practice, underlined van Hamel, is the only way of working beyond such thoughts. She said that by the competition’s end, the dancers who had continually rehearsed such difficult moments succeeded.
with technical deftness, however, isn’t enough to win the hearts of judges. To be a full artist, indicated van Hamel, one must stimulate the imagination of the audience. In a documentary about NYIBC directed by Claudia Myers, van Hamel spoke about how the leads in Bayadère must generate a dreamlike world. The scarf “is there to create a cloud,” she said. Like the diaphanous material, the dancers should have the same ethereal quality, floating through space.
In teaching the pas de deux from Bournonville’s
Kermesse in Bruges
, Eva Kloborg and Thomas Lund underlined that dancing in the Danish tradition requires a devotion to simplicity. “This is the essence,” said Lund, explaining that from the first mimed gestures in the pas de deux, the dancers must project a lack of pretension.
In coaching these first moments, Lund, who is a principal dancer, had the dancers speak the mime—“you, here, dance with me”— out loud to each other. It gave them an understanding of how simple gestures (reaching, nodding, indicating) can communicate emotion. This directness, he said, must continue through Bournonville’s intricate, scissoring footwork. “Quite often when you’re not used to the speed, you lose the flow and the ease on the top.”
Not wanting to overwhelm the danc-ers—none of whom were trained in modern dance—Roxane D’Orléans Juste introduced Limón’s
by having them lie on the floor to feel the weight of their bodies. She warned them, “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea that this is going to be easier!” Nevertheless, she wanted the dancers to feel relaxed. “If you hold,” she said referring to the breath and the body’s musculature, “it will be much harder.” Before teaching them any choreography, Juste gave them exercises in which they fell back into each other’s arms, introducing them to the concept of dancing with gravity. In the performances of Mazurkas, D’Orléans Juste found that “most of them really took it to another level. They were joyful.”
Founder and executive director Ilona Copen says her underlying philosophy is that the healthiest competition is within oneself, and that dancing well is a never-ending pursuit. Copen, who founded the competition in 1983, feels that the NYIBC allows dancers to “grow artistically and as human beings.” June 6-26, she will provide another 48 dancers with the opportunity to meet their potential. The key to reaching it, she says, is to never give up, to be open, and to love the learning process. “NYIBC,” she beamed, “is about passing artistry from the mature artist to the young artist.”
Rachel Straus writes about dance for The New York Sun.