Youth America Grand Prix, the world's largest student ballet competition, is coming up on the end of its 20th-anniversary season. As aspiring pre-professionals gear up for this year's New York Finals, we're taking a look at a handful of YAGP participants who are already generating major buzz.
In 2018, the Youth America Grand Prix added a rule: For participants under age 12, performing on pointe became strongly discouraged. For those under 11, it became prohibited.
The competition organizers made these changes after jury members, teachers and others raised concerns about students being pushed to perform on pointe too early. Larissa Saveliev, YAGP co-founder and director, says, "Ten years ago we didn't have to have these rules because nobody was progressing that fast."
As ballet prodigies get younger and their abilities more extraordinary, many are asking, How young is too young to let their bodies dance on the tips of their toes?
In late March, The Joyce Theater's annual gala performance included a last-minute substitution: Blueprint, by choreographer Pam Tanowitz. The trio took the place of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Faun, after two Paris Opéra Ballet dancers were unable to secure visas to appear onstage in the U.S.
"It was a shock," says Linda Shelton, executive director at The Joyce Theater. "In all 25 of my years here, I think we'd only been turned down once before. That was ages ago and we already had a feeling that dancer wouldn't be approved anyway, because of an issue with their passport. This was just a big, big surprise."
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
Not only has Larissa Saveliev made competition "acceptable" for ballet students, but her blockbuster Youth America Grand Prix has given those students a chance to measure themselves against peers from across the world—and be seen by directors. More than 450 YAGP alums are currently dancing in professional companies around the world.
To hear the screaming throngs of teenagers, you might think this was a Beatles concert in 1964. But no, it's dance students from all over the world joining together for the Youth America Grand Prix's gala at Lincoln Center, excited to see some of the greatest stars in dance today. Their rafter-shaking enthusiasm was heartening to hear, as they will no doubt become the performers, teachers, donors and audiences of tomorrow.
Actually, every single dance was a "best moment." In the first half of the YAGP gala, dubbed the "Stars of Tomorrow," 11 young dancers from the United States, Argentina, Portugal, Czech Republic, Japan and China displayed their outsized talents in solo variations. The young audience responded to the astounding turns and jumps that kept coming and coming.
Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro in Wheeldon's "Carousel," all photos Siggul/VAM
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Five years ago, a little dance documentary took the ballet world by storm. First Position, former dancer Bess Kargman's film that followed several top dancers competing at Youth America Grand Prix, took a slew of awards at film festivals. Not only did it give viewers an unprecedented look at the pressure-filled world of ballet competitions, it also made stars of the talents it followed.
This year's New York City finals, April 22–29, are fast approaching. (By the way, YAGP will be streaming all the live action online.) So it got me thinking: What happened to those kiddos—now adults—that Kargman introduced us to years ago?
The first young dancer we met in the documentary was Aran Bell, an 11-year-old American studying in Rome. Bell loved BB guns and ballet, and had a pretty great sense of humor. And oh yeah, he was incredibly talented, with a natural ability to turn like a top.
Today, Bell dances in American Ballet Theatre's Studio Company. He's certainly a little taller than he was during the First Position days, but he can still turn.
Aran Bell, photographed by NYC Dance Project.
Rebecca Houseknecht's story felt the most conventional of those First Position. She lived at home, went to a traditional high school, she even tried cheerleading. At Maryland Youth Ballet though, where she trained, she wasn't your average dancer. Houseknecht had beautiful lines, and a natural ease to her dancing. Unfortunately, at the end of the film, we find out she didn't place at the YAGP finals. But she was offered an invite to audition privately at Washington Ballet, and was hired to dance in the Studio Company.
According to a Washington Post story from 2012, Houseknecht spent a year dancing professionally, and then quit. She denied a contract from Sebtime Webre to join the main company. "I didn't like having to dance for my job, as weird as it sounds," she said. "You think it was my dream, but it just didn't work." Houseknecht went on to study speech pathology at Towson University, and joined its national title-winning competitive dance team. And after taking a peek at her Twitter, it looks like she's still involved in the dance, as a ballet teacher at Maryland Performing Arts Center.
Joan Sebastian Zamora
Joan Sebastian Zamora was a 16-year-old grown up. He was living in New York City during filming, away from his parents in his native Colombia. Zamora had squeaky-clean technique for a young dancer. At the end of First Position, we learned that he was given a scholarship to study at the Royal Ballet School.
After graduating from there, Zamora joined the English National Ballet, where he danced for two seasons. He left in 2015 to come back Stateside and join The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.
Californian Miko Fogarty was sort of what you would expect of a serious ballet-dancer-to-be. She left traditional schooling to do homeschooling so that she could spend more hours during the day dancing, and her mom was a stereotypically obsessive dance mom. But all those sacrifices paid off. Fogarty's dancing had a maturity well beyond her 12 years.
Since the film, Fogarty went on to win tons of medals, including gold at the 2013 Moscow International Ballet Competition, silver and bronze at Varna, and a Prix de Lausanne Award. She has gained a crazy social media following. Her Instagram has more than 280,000 followers. She now dances with the Birmingham Royal Ballet.
The gifted Michaela DePrince had a crazy-inspiring story. Born in Sierra Leone, her parents were shot by rebels. With no one to take care of her, DePrince was put in an orphanage. She was eventually adopted by Americans Elaine and Charles DePrince, who enrolled her at The Rock School in Philadelphia. DePrince had an incredible balance of flexibility and strength, and was clearly going to go far.
De Prince eventually left Philly to study at ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. She spent one year at Dance Theatre of Harlem before moving to the Dutch National Ballet as an apprentice. Since then, she's taken on several principal roles at the company. And just this month, DePrince was promoted to grand sujet for the 2016–17 season.
DePrince with Oscar Valdes in rehearsal, photo by Altin Kaftira.