when stars collide

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When you look into the night sky- somewhere other than New York City, where man-made mountains compete for the brightest shine- you see stars. Romantic that I am, I can remember walking up the brick path to my rural childhood home after a long night of ballet classes, head hanging back with my chin turned up to the sky, gazing at the twinkling stars. I can also recall someone (likely my scientist father) telling me that the stars we look up to actually burn billions of lightyears away. Some of them, he noted, may even be finished burning by the time our eyes catch their glow. In a way, having traveled so far to meet our eyes, the stars we are seeing have become something other than themselves. Imagine a world where the stars we see could come together with their origin, morphing time and twisting ties in the form of a flawless flicker. Imagine all of this happening in a golden theater, beneath a colossal diamond globe which casts its amber light like a blanket on the velvet seats below. Welcome to The Stars of Today Meet The Stars of Tomorrow gala.

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YAGP Finalists Avery Gay and Antonio Casalinho in Coppelia, photo by VAM Productions.

YAGP 2017 Gala Starts of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow

Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer in Spring Waters, photo by VAM Productions.

It’s hard not to feel sentimental as the gilded curtain rises, knowing you are about to witness the collision of so many stars. Excuse my sap, but we bumped into ABT cool girl Isabella Boylston outside the theater and the Olsen twins ushered in right behind us, so my cortisol levels were just a weeeee bit spiked. Adrenal fangirl reactions aside, the magnitude of this performance deserves all of the reverence I can attempt to give in my wanting words.

YAGP 2017 Gala Starts of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow

YAGP Finalist Diogo De Oliveira in Terra, photo by VAM Productions.

The evening began with fiery performances from the Final Round frontrunners, softened by Chloe Misseldine’s regal Queen of The Driads and punctuated by an energetic Coppelia coda from 2016 YAGP Grishko Model Search Winner, Avery Gay, and her dynamo little partner, Antonio Casalinho. The traditional YAGP Grand Défilé was all that you would expect it to be- a sea of vibrating legs and muscular-if not slightly awkward- port de bras. Over 300 students formed a ballet-shaped mass which folded into itself before blooming to reveal precious little Guine Ann in the center, like a pearl in an undulating oyster.

What followed was one of the best nights of ballet I have ever experienced.

YAGP 2017 Gala Starts of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow

NYCB’s Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro in Carousel, photo by VAM Productions.

Starting with the sweeping French romanticism of the enchanting Tiler Peck and YAGP alumni/NYCB hunk Zachary Catazaro in the “Heaven’s Ballet” pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon‘s Carousel, the “Stars of Today” certainly did not disappoint. In fact, they exceeded expectations. Next up world ballroom champions Brittany O’Connor and Paul Barris took the stage serving sultry star quality, slipping in and out of complicated lift sequences like melting wax.

YAGP 2017 Gala Starts of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow

Brittany O’Connor and Paul Barris in Besame Mucho, photo by VAM Productions.

ABT’s little section of the evening featured a surprise, spritely solo from James Whiteside, as well as a breath of fresh air in the form of Spring Waters danced by Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer (both YAGP alumni). There was an effective- perhaps just a tad excessive- futuristic concept piece of David Parsons choreography danced by the powerful Ian Spring and the ever-inspiring Tamara Rojo closing the evening with Cesar Corrales in Le Corsaire, but the show-stopper of the evening was absolutely the US Premiere of David Dawson‘s White Swan Pas de Deux. National Ballet of Canada dancers Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie moved with a fluid resistance to the air around them, as if their entire pas de deux existed under water. It was a sub-human blending of ease and intentional work, the sort of performance that elicits trance and total consciousness all at once.

This is what happens when stars collide.

YAGP 2017 Gala Starts of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow

Svetlana Lukina and Evan McKie in White Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake, photo by VAM Productions.

 

 

the final round

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Junior Grand Prix Winner, Madison Penney in Variation from La Esmeralda. Photo by VAM productions.

 

Tiny netted buns flock from all directions toward Lincoln Center, filling the surrounding sidewalks with even more bustle than usual. It’s April in New York City and that means flowery trees, energetic birds, and equally excited young ballet hopefuls buzzing backstage at Youth America Grand Prix.

Wednesday night’s Final Round filled me with all kinds of nostalgic warm fuzzies, a feeling that never quite managed to find me while I was actually competing all those years ago. As the gold curtain rose on little Remie Madeleine Goins, first competitor of the evening, those fuzzies shifted from nostalgia to pure adoration (is there anything cuter than a beautiful, 12-year-old teeny Harlequinade?). About 7 seconds in, that feeling shifted again to one of astonishment; Little Miss Goins whipped out some pretty spectacular pirouettes with gusto and sass to match. She went on to win the Shelley King Award For Excellence, and excellent she was.

From there the performances ebbed and flowed, with standouts in a seas of Esmeraldas from ultimate Junior Grand Prix and First Place award-winners Madison Penney and Hannah Park, respectively, as well as a technically clean and precisely French Satanella from Elisabeth Beyer. The crowd fell hard and fast for Taro Kurach’s Basilio (the longest applause I’ve heard at YAGP since Jim Nowakowski), but for me, the true highlight of the night came from sweet Viola Pantuso’s Fairy Doll variation. Though her success was no huge surprise (Miss Pantuso hails from Ellison Ballet, aka New York’s Leading Compete-erina Factory), a rather serious tumble mid-solo did leave things hanging in the balance a bit. What impressed me most was not the way she popped right back up without missing a beat, gorgeous technique highlighted by a tastefully sparkling costume, but her unmistakable stage presence- that thing that simply can’t be taught. It can be coached, though! And ex-FBP Ballet Mistress/dear old friend, Jolanta Valeikaite (who was previously honored with YAGP’s Teacher of the Year Award), is just the woman for the job! Leave to sweet, tough, brutal, loving Jolanta to put her whole self into nurturing a perfectly polished performance. Bravo!

how to win a competition without even placing

Is ballet becoming too competitive?

With ballet competitions growing in number and popularity every year, it seems today’s generation of young dancers are developing in a world where a dancer’s talent is judged more on technical perfection than artistry.  The operative word here, though, isn’t technique or artistry, but judged.  After reading this article debating the danger of ballet competitions, I’m feeling pretty unresolved about my feelings on the matter.

Growing up as a competition kid (Starquest, IDC, Sophisticated Productions, what up?!), I looked forward to competition season more than Christmas.  A chance to perform in front of what I pretended were my adoring fans out there in the uncomfortable high school auditorium seats?  SIGN ME UP.  Plus it also involves wearing a bejeweled leotard and maybe even winning a shiny trophy at the end?  I’M SO THERE.

When my love of doing hitch-kicks to a broadway hit a la All That Jazz waned, a growing love for ballet engulfed my life like wildfire.  I was finally learning about turnout and barrework and my type A personality appreciated my body’s enthusiasm for this new kind of movement.  But there was something missing.  I was still taking class Monday-Saturday and sweating through my ballet slippers, but something did not feel quite right.  That is, until I heard about Youth America Grand Prix and realized how little I had been performing since I left the jazz/tap/lyrical world behind.  YAGP introduced itself to me as a new opportunity to perform.  An occasion to hit the stage and have people watching me dance.  This is the reason we study ballet in the first place, no?  To perform.30647_10150200706480611_8196906_n

me performing at YAGP in 2009

Of course, an important point made in the aforementioned article is that this audience we are performing for at competitions is not exactly ballet’s intended audience, the public, but instead it’s ballet itself.  In other words, it’s us: the fellow dancers, ex-dancers, ballet moms, dads and grandmas, choreographers, directors, teachers, and coaches.  Of course we think it’s incredible when a 16-year-old nails 4 pirouettes en pointe, but what about her blank stare?  For some reason, a stale face and lack of expression is overshadowed by a 180 degree ecarté and this, my friends, is exactly the problem with ballet competitions today.

After competing in YAGP for several years, I realized it wasn’t the awards ceremony that I had benefitted from, but all of the training leading up to the big event and my performance itself that were enriching my dancing.  Of course the fact that there was a chance of winning a title certainly revved up my gusto in rehearsals, but it was during these rehearsals that I was actually growing.

If I could write a letter to my YAGP-competing-aged-self, I would tell me to take advantage of those long, hard rehearsals as a chance to improve my technique and each day consider how my artistry is changing to fit a character.  When it came time to perform I would tell myself to let go of the stressful turning diagonal at the end of my variation and let my expression come through, because that is what performing ballet is really about.  Expressing yourself through movement.  And that right there, is how you win a competition without even placing.  Training advice with an extra helping of cheesy goodness for your Wednesday afternoon.  Thoughts, anyone?