The first time I performed a solo, I was 6. It was at a competition, and after I danced, I remember hearing the judges and friends of mine say that I made them cry. Sidenote: I had been mouthing the lyrics from The Hunchback of Notre Dame's "God Help the Outcasts" while dancing, and those lyrics could make anyone cry. But I do think I touched those people because I sincerely felt what I was trying to express.
Jensen and Matthew Golding in "Swan Lake." Photo courtesy of Jensen.
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
How has the rising popularity of competitions affected the concert dance world?
Backstage at Youth America Grand Prix finals. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Showstopper hosts more than 50 events each year. Photo courtesy Showstopper.
A disembodied voice calls out a number, name, age and title of the dance. Out of the wings comes an expert strut of lanky limbs and big pointe-shoed feet as an adolescent dancer begins her solo. Maybe it’s Kitri’s sassy Act III variation or perhaps some hypermobile contemporary choreography to the latest pop ballad. Either way, the stakes for this young dancer are incredibly high: Sitting in the audience alongside nervous parents, tense teachers and a table of judges are the artistic directors of major dance companies, who’ve come to scout for fresh talent.
While competitions are certainly not new to the dance world, they are now taken more seriously than ever as part of a dancer’s training. It is no longer possible for traditional dance schools to turn their noses up at competitions where top ballet and modern companies routinely hand out scholarships and contracts—Youth America Grand Prix, for one, estimates that over 300 of its alumni are now dancing in 80 companies around the world. More dancers from competitions/conventions such as New York City Dance Alliance and JUMP are now finding professional homes in companies such as Batsheva Dance Company, Dresden Semperoper Ballett, Aszure Barton & Artists and Boston Ballet. Not only are competitions now a place for dancers to be seen early in their pre-professional career, these contests are also giving concert-dance companies that special something: bold dancers who can do it all.
YAGP boasts more than 300 alumni dancing for 80 companies worldwide. Photo by Rachel Papo for Pointe.
“These dancers have an indomitable will and a sense to just get out there,” says Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, who routinely scouts for dancers at The Music Center’s Spotlight Awards, YAGP, World Ballet Competition and USA IBC in Jackson. About a quarter of his company members have come through competition-dance channels. “I look for young students who are fearless and I follow their progression over a number of years.”
Coached from a young age to perform virtuosic tricks and pushed to command a stage, competition dancers tend to exhibit a precocious confidence that sets them apart from students who develop in the more traditional dance school format of humbly honing technique before performing regularly. “I think a lot of competition dancers come into companies day one with verve and fire,” says Desmond Richardson, co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, which launched the new Élite Dance Tournament this year in conjunction with the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City. Even though former competitors’ stage presence can sometimes look exaggerated, Richardson says it’s typically easier for artistic staff to tone down dancers’ performance quality rather than turn it up later.
But how does all of this spirited willfulness work out when it moves into the more understated world of a corps de ballet or ensemble? Many young dancers experience a learning curve when they have to adjust to working in groups and learning to match their peers instead of stealing the show in just one solo. There can sometimes be a culture clash between competition dancers and their non-competition peers. After competing at events like Showbiz National Talent and LA Dance Magic, Ida Saki remembers feeling somewhat looked down upon as a “trickster with no artistry” when she first transferred to a performing arts high school where competitions weren’t the norm. However, when she later joined Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, though she sometimes wished she had more training in strict ballet, she often felt she had an advantage with choreographers who saw her as more adventurous about taking on foreign movement vocabularies.
Competitions also seem to promote an exceptional kind of resiliency. Being constantly coached for competitions creates dancers who absorb constructive criticism easily—and the judging process teaches them early on how subjective dance is as an art form. As Saki learned at a young age, “One person may fall in love with you while the person sitting next to them couldn’t care less.”
Dusty Button credits her work ethic today to her time on the circuit. Photo courtesy Button.
Dusty Button, a Boston Ballet principal who cut her teeth at NYCDA and Showstopper, believes her competitive sensibility helped her rise to the top of the ballet company hierarchy unusually fast. “It fostered a work ethic in the sense that I believe if you’re going to rehearse, it should be at your best 100 percent of the time,” she says. “Otherwise, you slow yourself from progressing.” Button is only one example at Boston Ballet: Fellow young principals like Whitney Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio also racked up multiple titles before rising through the company’s ranks. It’s an unsurprising trend in a company where the rep thrives on thrilling virtuosity.
The pitfalls of focusing so much attention on performing a variation for a contest, especially for a less experienced student, tend to show up in the details of proper technique. Either because of a rush to do advanced steps too soon or out of a desire to absorb so many different styles so quickly, the fine-tuning can be overlooked. Teaching ballet for Velocity Dance Convention and Competition, Melissa Sandvig, who danced for Milwaukee Ballet and on “So You Think You Can Dance,” often sees amazing movers whipping off eight pirouettes, yet finds herself focusing on basic technical aspects of a step or transitions between positions. Richardson agrees: “They may have no problem with performing, but it’s the transitions, passing through fifth, that sometimes is left out.”
Ida Saki became more adventurous at competitions like LA Dance Magic. Photo courtesy Saki.
Richardson’s new competition brainchild, Élite Dance Tournament, tries to meld the best of both worlds by giving young dancers an opportunity to be seen—and to focus on technical details and artistry. In a fashion similar to the Prix de Lausanne, EDT requires contestants to take scored master classes that are limited to just 25 students.
It’s no surprise that aspiring professionals are attracted to the unparalleled exposure offered at competitions. “You have to go for it to get noticed now and take risks to get better,” says Sandvig. Competitions train young dancers to do just that. But as more and more come through this route, the trick will be converting so many standout dancers into members of an aesthetically coherent ensemble, rather than a band of solo artists sparring for the spotlight. n
A former dancer, Candice Thompson is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine.
Whitney Jensen tackles college on the side.
Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio in Alexander Ekman's Cacti. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Boston Ballet
Whitney Jensen’s career is a study in ballet stardom. With a slew of competition medals, she joined Boston Ballet’s corps in 2009 and hasn’t stopped rising since. The 22-year-old’s long lines, calm, yet intense presence and surprising humility earned her a much-awaited promotion to principal this summer.
But there’s more to Jensen than what fans see onstage. While catapulting to the top of the company, she has also been studying part-time at Northeastern University. Though she went to school to explore future career options, she has already seen a return on the degree. School, Jensen says, has opened her up to new experiences that help her develop on- and offstage.
Like many ballet dancers, Jensen didn’t prioritize college when she first joined Boston Ballet. Ensuring her future there took all of her time and focus. But she began to rethink her path when the company entered a partnership with Northeastern in 2013. She saw how inspired her peers were by the courses they were taking and enrolled the next year. “I was nervous for my first English class,” she admits. “But you quickly remember how to be a student again. It’s not so intimidating once you start.”
Through the partnership, dancers sign up for regular or accelerated classes, held online or on campus, at a subsidized 80 percent discount. Twenty-six of the Boston Ballet’s 60 dancers are currently enrolled on a bachelor’s or master’s track. Jensen thinks she might eventually use her BA toward a career in the business side of the arts as a company manager or gala coordinator after she’s done dancing.
Going to school while dancing full-time isn’t easy. When most dancers head home to relax after a long day of rehearsals, Jensen sits down to write an English paper. On average, she devotes as many as four hours a day to class and homework. To ease the workload, she breaks assignments up into smaller, daily deadlines. For the most part, she prefers to keep dance and school separate so she can give each the concentration they require.
When school does interact with work though, she says it’s often for the better. Her studies have not only deepened her view of the world, but also boosted her interactions with colleagues. “It’s changed the way we spend our free time. You’ll see a lot of dancers here, on their lunch break, on the computer doing homework,” she says. “It widens that realm of communication. You’re learning together. You can be inspired by other people.”
Because she’s only taking one course a semester—sometimes not enrolling in any if the performance season is particularly grueling—it will take her several years longer than average to graduate. But she says that giving herself the space to take her time makes the experience all the more enjoyable. Meanwhile, the process itself has benefited her dancing and beyond. “When you take a step back and realize that you’re human and that ballet isn’t the only thing in the world, you grow,” Jensen says. “You just have more depth.”