I always have a great time judging for Youth America Grand Prix. Having just returned from the San Francisco venue, I write this while it’s still fresh in my mind. Here are the reasons:
Michelle Lin, 11, winner of Hope Award, all photos @ VAM Productions
I get to see a lot of young people dance and know that their families support their passion. This is not the case everywhere in the world. We are fortunate.
When we judges fill in the score sheet, I can tell each participant something more personal than just the checklist or the percentage points. Even though we only have about 90 seconds to watch the dancer, check off the attributes and give scores for artistry and technique, there is still room to write a couple sentences saying what we appreciate in their work and where we think they could improve.
I get to hang out with other judges, who are fun, dedicated people in ballet and other forms of dance. This time I worked with dance professionals I’d never met before, like the wonderful Pascal Molat, who was for years my favorite male dancer with San Francisco Ballet; ballroom/Salsa expert Paul Barris; Peter Merz, director of Ballet West Academy; ballet-turned-commercial dancer Brittany O'Connor; and former Pacific Northwest Ballet star Carla Körbes, whom I haven’t seen since her new life with L. A. Dance Project. Colleagues I had shared the judging table with before included Kelly Boal from PNB School; Peter Stark, associate director of Boston Ballet II; former ABT soloist Gennadi Saveliev; and the fabulous Karine Plantadit, former Ailey and Tharp dancer.
I get to hear Russian spoken a lot, which is a language I happen to love. When co-directors Gennadi and Larissa Saveliev and all their helpers speak Russian, it goes too fast for me to really understand but I just love being around the language.
Elizabeth Nip, 12, 2nd place in contemporary, junior division
I can watch classes taught by people I don't usually get a chance to see. Plantadit was a torrent of crazy energy that challenged the dancers every which way. And Molat, a supreme example of the opposing forces that gives dance its texture, was a pleasure to behold. The wide array of classes at any YAGP venue gives participants an experience that is about learning rather than winning.
Jonacy Montero, 14, 1st place, men's classical, junior divison
At the awards ceremony, I love hearing the students cheer each other when the winners of each category are announced. This is not just polite acknowledgement, but loud and long yelling, hooting and whistling. I would say there is often more camaraderie than competitiveness at YAGP.
The ensemble category is always nourishing because the dancers learn what it means to dance together. Sometimes it’s just about patterns in space, other times its about a community, or a folk spirit. In San Francisco, one group was so fierce in its confrontation of tragic violence that I was in tears.
There is still a problem with the “contemporary” category slipping into mere acrobatics especially when the solos are recycled from regional competitions that give points for contortionist positions. What we value at YAGP is the quality of the dancing. Do they love dancing? Does the artistry come through? Are they expressing their true selves, or just doing the steps? In every city, in every season, the contestants who dance from their soul radiate light and you cannot miss them.