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?
At competitions, the people who are scoring you can be the biggest industry leaders in the room. But is there a way to network with them with these judges? Three top competition judges share their advice on how to do it in the most strategic way—and the pet peeves that turn them off.
As a student, Katherine Barkman competed in several prestigious ballet competitions, and even won first place at the Youth America Grand Prix in Philadelphia. But at age 21, already a guest principal dancer with Ballet Manila, she decided to return to the competition stage as a professional. She found herself humbled by an experience at the 2017 Moscow International Ballet Competition.
"I was pretty intimidated, thinking, This is the big leagues, this is the Bolshoi Theatre," says Barkman, who was eliminated after the first round. "You are not just judged on how good you are for your age."
Competitions have long had a place in the training of young dancers, allowing them more opportunities to perform and learn under pressure. But even after you've secured a company contract, there are myriad benefits to putting yourself in front of judges.
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."
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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.
Throw together a night of performances by international dancers, sprinkle in some teenage competition winners' solos, and call it something cute: That would seem to be the recipe for Youth America Grand Prix's "Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow" gala, happening this Thursday and Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Except, the name of this annual program is eerily prescient. When you look back at the lists of YAGP medalists from the past 15 years, that "Stars of Tomorrow" moniker is spot-on. They read like something of a Who's Who of ballet—including several top names who've been highlighted in Dance Magazine.
- Back in 2002, Sarah Lane nabbed the senior bronze medal with an unforgettable performance: After her music stopped 20 seconds into her Paquita variation, she finished the rest in silence. In the audience (which erupted into a spontaneous standing ovation) was American Ballet Theatre artistic director Kevin McKenzie. We ended up putting Lane on Dance Magazine's cover in June 2007 just before he promoted her to soloist.
- Jim Nowakowski won the Youth Grand Prix in 2002 before joining Houston Ballet, then took a star turn on "So You Think You Can Dance." We named him one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" this year.
- That same year, Brooklyn Mack placed third in the classical dance category for senior men. Today, he's a standout dancer at The Washington Ballet, and partnered Misty Copeland in her first U.S. performance of Swan Lake.
- Hee Seo took the Grand Prix in 2003. She would later become one of ABT's classiest principals, gracing our May 2013 cover.
- Whitney Jensen
won the gold medal among the junior women in 2005. She appeared on DM's 2010 "25 to Watch" cover with Broadway's William Wingfield. After reaching the rank of principal at Boston Ballet, she recently joined Norwegian National Ballet.
- Joseph Gorak already flaunted crystal clean technique when he tied for the Grand Prix in 2006. He now partners leading ladies like Misty Copeland and Isabella Boylston as a soloist at ABT.
- Before he became the "bad boy of ballet," Sergei Polunin also shared the 2006 Grand Prix by showing off his eye-popping, rockstar style. After infamously walking out on his principal career at The Royal Ballet, he's now a guest soloist with the Stanislavsky Theater in Russia and also partnering/dating Natalia Osipova.
- Although she was more often seen at competitions like New York City Dance Alliance and Showstopper, Dusty Button won the bronze medal for classical dance among the seniors at YAGP in 2006. She told us last July that she feels her competitive sensibility was what helped her become a principal at Boston Ballet so quickly.
Melissa Hamilton at YAGP 2007
- After winning the Grand Prix in 2007, Melissa Hamilton joined The Royal Ballet. She's currently taking a two-season leave of absence to stretch her contemporary skills as a principal with Dresden Semperoper Ballet.
- A tiny Catherine Hurlin won the "Hope Award" in the pre-competitive division in 2008 (see her incredible contemporary performance at 7:52 in this video). Although she's still in ABT's corps, she's already made a name for herself as one of its most talented up-and-comers.
Catherine Hurlin at YAGP 2008
- Jeffrey Cirio won the Grand Prix in 2009. He now balances a soloist career at ABT with building his own choreographic side project, Cirio Collective.
- I remember being backstage in 2010 when Hannah O’Neill won the gold medal among the seniors (see her variation at minute 4:53 in the video below). Her old-fashioned grace was stunning; it's no wonder Benjamin Millepied promoted her to first soloist at Paris Opéra Ballet this season. This week, she'll be performing at YAGP's gala as one of the "Stars of Today."
- Hannah Bettes took the gold medal among the junior women in the classical dance category in 2011 (see her charming Coppélia variation at 1:54). Today she's turning heads at Boston Ballet.
- Kimin Kim won the Grand Prix in 2012 before becoming principal at the Mariinsky Ballet.
Of course, this is only a small list of the many former YAGP winners who've gone on to have amazing dance careers. And that's what's so exciting: You never know where those "Stars of Tomorrow" might go.
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.
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.
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.