beyond the barre with whitney jensen

The first time I saw Whitney Jensen, we were twelve. Waiting in the wings backstage at YAGP, she was one of those girls whose port de bras continued into her normal human life, resulting in a resting posture that was elegant as all heck. She was this gorgeous, leggy thing, with a head of glossy platinum hair that looked right at home beneath a palatial tiara. Everything about her sparkling black tutu radiated professionalism, and mine was, well…pale green. Fast forward several summers- I was invited to train with Jensen’s coach/Master of Elegance ,Valentina Kozlova, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that Whitney’s grace was every bit as present in her personality as it was in her performance. From New York to Boston to Oslo, Whitney seems to bring a sweet spirit, confidence, and special flair with her where ever she goes. Read on to find out about her competitive roots, time off, and what it’s like to date a dancer…

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“Player”, Norwegian National Ballet, photo by Erik Berg

Hello dear! Let’s bring it back. What is your earliest dance memory? 

My earliest dance memory would be when I was probably 3 years old. My mom owned her own Dance Studio and my older sisters were taking classes every day. I remember being in the studio watching them in class thinking I wanted to be just like them. 

So you started training right away?

When I was about 5 my mom closed her studio and I started taking classes at The Dance Club. When I was 8 I wanted to focus more on ballet so I also began taking extra ballet classes at Utah Regional Ballet. When I was 11 I studied at Ballet West for one year.

And that’s when you moved to New York City to study ballet more intensively, yes?

My move to New York City began gradually. Once I began training with Valentina, I was still living and going to school in Park City, Utah. I would travel to New York City on the weekends for a few private lessons and return home to Utah on Monday evenings. After a while this got very exhausting and was difficult for me to keep up with school work. I then began independent studies on my own and my trips to New York turned into weeks instead of days. By the end of the year I remember asking my parents if I could just stay in New York. They were hesitant, but since I had two older sisters living in New York at the time, my parents agreed that I could stay in the city.

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performing the Black Swan variation, age 12

It must have been quite the experience, moving from Utah to NY at such a young age!

Living with my second oldest sister in New York City as a 12 year old is still one of my most favorite times. I learned to be independent, accountable, diligent and disciplined. I definitely grew up quickly. The following year my sister decided she would pursue her dreams in California and I felt prepared to live on my own. I don’t quite know why my parents allowed this, but I do think they had trust in me. I was focused and knew what I wanted. I also knew if I wasn’t obedient and doing what I should be that I would probably be sent back to Utah and wouldn’t be able to continue the training I needed.

Sounds like you were very driven. Was that a result of your relationship with Valentina?

My coach Valentina was someone I looked up to and wanted to be when I was training. Every little thing about her inspired me to become a professional ballerina. She knew me better than any of my other teachers. She knew all of my weaknesses and strengths and helped me to identify those on my own and how to work with what I have. Most importantly, she challenged me to be better than the previous day.

Her attention to upper body and port de bras is what sets her apart from most coaches, and I was a sponge. I mimicked her in the mirror until I looked exactly like her. I think that is why our relationship as coach and student worked so well. I trusted her and saw my improvements immediately. One piece of advice that I always keep in my mind when I work every day is the importance of the back. It completely changes your appearance from someone who looks timid, to someone who is commanding and confident. 

I always credit my lack of performance nerves to attending competitions as a student. Do you feel that competing had a similar effect for you? 

Competitions definitely contributed to my lack of performance nerves. Don’t get me wrong, I still have butterflies but I have managed them due to the amount of pressure that competitions provide. I was 6 when I first started competing, and my mom is the one to credit for helping me conquer nerves. She would always tell me, “Don’t be nervous, you are here to share your gift. Think of it like they are taking a break from the competition and you are the guest artist!” Since she said that to me, I would tell myself the same thing in my head right before I would go onstage. I would imagine the announcer saying “We will take a short break and Whitney Jensen will perform as our guest.” For some reason that took the pressure off of me to feel I had to be technically perfect and I could just perform and tell a story. 

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with her mother at Radio City Music Hall, where she performed as Clara

That’s brilliant! What a smart mama. So your first professional contract was with Boston Ballet. After climbing the ranks rather quickly, you made the decision to leave the company in 2015. What spawned this dramatic life change?

My decision to leave Boston Ballet the year after I was promoted to Principal was not something that I decided impulsively. I had been thinking about it for a few years. I guess I felt that I needed to be challenged in a different way. Personally, I wanted to be seen through a new pair of eyes perhaps. To reinvent myself and not be stuck in a box. 

After leaving Boston Ballet, you went back home for a while. What was this time like for you?

I moved home to Utah to gain a sense of clarity. I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to be in a company at that time. I needed a break. Since I was 12, I had been told what to do to make it as a professional. I just followed along and did as I was told. It wasn’t until I left Boston Ballet that I felt I had made a decision on my own. It was the scariest most exhilarating feeling! I had no idea what would happen but I knew without a doubt I would be okay and things would work out. I was probably the most calm I had ever been since moving to Boston.

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in Jerome Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun with Sabi Varga at Boston Ballet, photo by Rosalie O’Connor

It sounds like that time may have been exactly what you needed, because last year you landed a contract with The Norwegian National Ballet is Oslo, Norway. Congrats, lady! That’s a pretty big leap, what brought you all that way?

During my 6 month break I knew I couldn’t stop dancing so I relocated back to New York  and lived with my oldest sister and her amazing family. I needed to have the time to be near family and make my own schedule. I took class every day at Steps and rented space to work on my own. Somehow I manage to work hardest on my own. I would say this is because of how Valentina coached me. She emphasized how crucial it is to know yourself and push yourself because its not for anyone’s benefit but your own. My favorite moments as a professional dancer are working in a studio by myself.

However, I was missing the company life. The structure of being in a company is important but I mainly missed being on stage more often. Guesting here and there just wasn’t enough for me. I had tried to audition in Oslo a few years back but there were no availabilities. I understood that European companies are different because they deal with permanent contracts as opposed to yearly ones, so it’s more a game of timing than anything else. I was encouraged to send my cv and performance video to Oslo by a friend of mine who was in the company. Once I sent the email I felt calm, but honestly had no expectations. Within a few days I received an email back from the director Ingrid herself, and within 2 months I was on my way to Oslo. It all just fell into place.

Was it a difficult transition? 

The transition was difficult, but like anything foreign it was exciting.

What is the company like?

The company is refreshing. The dancers are kind people and welcomed me individually on my first day. I have to say that I had never seen that before and was incredibly impressed.

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off duty in Norway

How lovely! So how is life in Norway now? 

As this is my first time living abroad there are of course challenges. The time difference between my family and loved ones is probably my biggest challenge still. I am between 6 and 8 hours ahead of everyone! Except my brother who now lives in Paris! Thank goodness my best friend is close! European dance life is just different. I would say the biggest difference is you really have to motivate yourself. Also, people aren’t into social media as much over here. It’s definitely refreshing. 

Speaking of social media (ha)…I think I saw on Instagram that you recently performed Micaela in Liam Scarlett’s Carmen, is that right? I just did Micaela here (in Viktor’s version). I found it to be such a wonderfully complex character, so sweet and softly sad. What was your experience with this dancing this role?

Performing Micaela in Liam Scarlett’s Carmen was enjoyable. I had a great partner who is one of my friends and we laughed a lot. As a character, it was a bit harder for me to relate to Micaela. I wanted her to be a bit stronger and maybe not always be at Don Jose’s beck and call, but I did have a great time performing the pas de deux, which has some beautiful music. 

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rehearsing Liam Scarlett’s Carmen at The Norwegian National Ballet, photo by Erik Berg

I know what you mean. In Viktor’s version, Micaela also gets to sort of narrate the story, and that gives her character a lot of strength, which creates a nice balance. You also just performed Alexander Eckman’s Swan Lake (in PARIS!). It must have been such a crazy experience- dancing in water?!

Alexander Ekman’s A Swan Lake is one of a kind. Obviously! We are in water! It is exhausting! Some challenges were of course being in water for hours. The water gets cold, your body gets stiff. Being on your knees and gripping your legs when you slide required us to  be really grounded. It is definitely one of the most tiring shows I have ever done! Then again,  I would remind myself “This is your day at work! You are in water with some amazing music, fun movement, inspiring dancers and you get to be apart of it!”  Being in Paris was also just a highlight on it’s own.

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preparing for Alexander Eckman’s Swan Lake in Paris, photo by Anne-Sylvie Bonnet

Ah, it’s the best city. In your off time (because you just have so much free time, right?), you work with a group of dancers who perform as the Cirio Collective. Can you tell us a bit about this? 

Cirio Collective was started by Jeffrey Cirio and his sister Lia Cirio. At the time all the dancers asked to be apart of Collective were with Boston Ballet. The first summer we worked in Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod and grew extremely close. Almost like a family. For two weeks we would work in a studio helping Jeff create an entirely new piece to then perform at the end of the two weeks.

What is coming up next for you all?

This year will be my 3rd summer with Cirio Collective and the company has grown in dancers, musicians, choreographers and even clothing designers!! We are going to be back at Martha’s Vineyard and the Cape as usual but with an added week in New York City for a few performances at the Joyce Theater! I think everyone is super excited to share this unique group and ideas that Jeff and Lia want collective to be about. It’s important to recognize that Cirio Collective is not just another summer dance company. I think Jeff and Lia’s goal is to be different. Create pieces in 5 days with a specific goal. Collaborate with different kinds of artists. It’s different and I think art is meant to be viewed in different ways. Hopefully New York audiences will embrace that. 

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rehearsing with Cirio Collective co-founder, Jeffrey Cirio, photo by Jordan Jennings

The Joyce Theater! That’s very cool. And your relationship with Jeffrey goes beyond Cirio Collective (wink)…

Dating Jeffrey Cirio (Principal with ABT) is really great since we understand each other. Being long distance is definitely our biggest challenge but I know that what makes it work for us right now is that we are best friends. Of course we want to be in the same place but right now we work hard to make it work. And at the end of the day (literally) I get to talk to my best friend:)

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So in terms of going “beyond the barre”, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I have been thinking a lot lately about what I want to do when I am done dancing, or for my “next life” There are a few things that really interest me. Fashion is definitely on the top of my list a long with real estate. It is so random but I feel like I could be good at either of those! I mean, I guess I also always saw myself coaching as well. The ballet world is changing quickly and it is important to keep some very important traditions and legacies alive. I feel I have a responsibility to continue the knowledge I was given from Valentina. But I really don’t know yet! In ten years I see myself married with a few children living somewhere warm near the beach…happy. 

Well that sounds heavenly. Okay, lighting round!

Favorite Ballet? Romeo and Juliet

Dream Role? Juliet

Dream Partner? Would have been Baryshnikov ;)

Classical or Contemporary? I have to have both!

Favorite Restaurant in New York? Sanctuary T.    Boston? Tatte.     Oslo? I don’t know yet!

Most memorable mishap?  I fell in every program except one my 3rd season in Boston! 

Career highlight? Dancing Theme and Variations and being coached by Pat Neery

Advice to a younger you? Relationships with the people you love are the most important thing. Live in the moment. Ballet is an incredible gift but it is fleeting.

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Thank you so much for sharing, Whitney! Sending light and love to Oslo. xx, STB. 

prokofiev’s waltz

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Prokofiev is back in the studios, leading us through his most valtziest, schmaltziest of scores: Cinderella. Lately that classic melody has been filling every bit of free space in my head with its eerie brimstone canter. Daa-na, da na na na naaa…

This time around I’m doing a bit of a straddle across the ballet, dancing roles in every realm from corps to principal. That’s the beauty of an unranked company; you never know where the next rehearsal will take you! Wednesday morning I was in the back of the grand studio, a shivering Cinderella waltzing with her broom, then a Summer Fairy, attempting to personify the haze of balmy weather through a casual roll into plié. Next I was swept off into the ballroom by my handsome Prince Charming, only to be whisked into the wind as the ethereal Fairy Godmother. At night I returned to the studios a ball guest, giving in to the dark saccharine theme permeating the room.

The career of a ballet dancer hinges almost entirely on brain power. As much as it will impose upon your body (hello, angry calves), it will challenge your mind even further; “Can you learn an entire ballet- and keep it together!- in a week?” Ballet wants to know. “Can you portray an orphan child, a rich party goer, and several types of mythical creatures? Can you do it earnestly, genuinely, can you really?” Well, let’s find out.

 

photo by Samantha Wong.

she thinks therefore she thinx

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Everything is beautiful at the ballet…except when it’s not.

Let’s be real for a second, okay? Disclaimer: Male readers, you can excuse yourselves now. Ladies, let’s talk.

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Sometimes being a ballerina is all about tutus and pointe shoes and pink tights and tiaras and feeling like a beautiful princess, and sometimes it’s all about tutus and pink tights and period cramps. Being a professional ballet dancer revolves largely around the pursuit of seemingly effortless perfection, but in reality, most of this life is difficult, sweaty, and well, a bit icky.

Diving head first into that realness: attempting ballet with your period is not fun. Bloat, cramps, muscle soreness, it’s a cocktail of shitty. Not to mention the awkwardness of feminine care products. Pliés and pads? No, thank you. Has anyone else ever ruined a leotard a certain time of the month? Better yet- does anyone have a special “period leotard” (or 3?). Dark colors, looser styles, “boob friendlies” as I like to call them- these are a lady’s best friends. But what if there was a special leotard- designed by cool girls who get it- to help make your period a little easier? Well gird your loins!!! It’s here!

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The geniuses behind Thinx period underwear have created a line of leotards to make your period a bit less cringe-worthy. Now, if the sound of a leotard that absorbs your period sounds horrifying, please just stay with me for a minute here…

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While I wouldn’t want to go free as a bloody bird in the studio, an absorbent back up layer built into a leo might be one of the best ideas I’ve heard all year.

These leotards are designed with multiple layers of fabric in the nether regions. The outermost layer is antimicrobial and moisture wicking. All those lovely fluids absorb straight through to the inner layer, which locks them in like a magnet. That means guaranteed dryness (I mean, you know, not too dry, that would be weird- just the normal amount of dryness- then again, what is normal? we are all glorious, beautiful delicate flowers! but strong, too, right?! right!). Thinx somehow does all of this while still creating a not-too-thick, not-too-thin leo, perfect for light days as a backup for your tampon during those long rehearsals where you reeeealllly need to “take 5”.

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Best of all, these leotards are reusable! Just rinse with cold water and then toss it in with the rest of your clothes. Seriously! I was shocked, too, but it works like magic. Also, the Thinx leotard is pretty darn cute. Those mesh side panels are *v on trend* and the low criss-cross back is super flattering. The material is thick enough to feel held in but not squished- though I will say it’s a CHEEKY situation, if you know what I mean (wink). I also think this bad boy could be vastly improved with the addition of a shelf bra, as I am a big fan of support!

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SO are you breathing a sigh of relief? Does this sound insane to you? Let a sista know in the comments below!

Pssssst, they make unitards, too! Get yours here.

all photos by Jenay Evans for Setting The Barre. all opinions are my own :)

high marks

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Nina Ananiashvili and Bruce Marks, photo by VAM Productions

There is a significant someone missing from my previous YAGP posts, and that’s because I thought he deserved one of his own. The Youth America Grand Prix’s 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award was given to charming Mr. Bruce Marks, and boy, is he deserving. Though Marks’ roster of lifetime achievements is exceedingly impressive- an alumni of Brandeis and Julliard, protege of Anthony Tudor, principal dancer with The Metropolitan Opera, American Ballet Theatre and The Royal Danish Ballet, Artistic Director of Ballet West and Boston Ballet, to name a few- his proudest achievement seems to be the one he’s still working on: inspiring the next generation.

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Bruce Marks dancing with YAGP competitors at the Stars Gala Dinner

Bruce Marks accepted his recognition during The Stars of Today Meet The Stars of Tomorrow gala, fittingly just after the massive collection of baby bunheads known as Grand Défilé finished performing. Adorable little Guin Anne and the lovely State Ballet of Georgia Artistic Director Nina Ananiashvili presented the award. Marks’ speech was smart, sincere- albeit a bit on the lengthy side- but gracious and passionate nonetheless. All adjectives that seem suitable to describing the illustrious man himself. But my interaction with Mr. Marks took those things one step further…

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Just after the gala dinner of a lifetime, as B and I were returning to the Empire to hit the rooftop for a nightcap, it became very apparent to us that every fancy person we’d rubbed elbows with that night was doing the same. Passing by familiar faces in the crosswalk and making our way to the entrance, we  practically bumped straight into Bruce Marks under the awning, chatting with a few adoring friends of his. We paused, his famous friends departed, and with his gaze right on us, we approached. I extended a hand to introduce myself, but instead Mr. Marks warmly interrupted, “Come here, give me a kiss.” I felt like I was back in the shoes of my 14-year-old self, awestruck over one of the true greats. Pulling us in for quick hugs, we managed our hellos and expressed thanks for his immense dedication to the furthering of ballet education. Of course, it was difficult not to let slip at least one remark about his incredible legacy as a dancer. To that he replied- humble as anything- some more eloquent version of being in the right place at the right time. Marks credited his success to the dancers who taught him, noting that his duty is to spread what they gave him, “from Bejing to Brazilia”. What Mr. Marks said next really stuck with me:

“I’m a conduit, not a camera.”

I’m a conduit, not a camera. It appears Marks would suggest that he is a transmitter, not a machine made to capture. His job, according to him, is to transfer information. It is not to contain and show, but to give away. It felt like a metaphor for something even more, like the truest expression of ballet itself. It is not a tangible, framable art form. Not something to be held or collected, but a series of hard-earned, emotional moments, given away to the audience in the form of some lingering impression.

happy birthday julio

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Julio Bocca and dancers, photo by VAM Productions.

Is there any better way to round out a week of wonderment than by celebrating a man as talented and charming as Julio Bocca? I think not. Friday evening, the Koch Theatre replaced its grandiose guise with a delightfully casual vibe for the Bocca Birthday Bash. With famous dancers flooding the aisles to greet each other and catch up pre-show, I started to feel a bit like I’d stepped into a gigantic living room for a dancer dinner party catered to the likes of Stella Abrera, Lauren Lovette and Isabella Boylston.

As the curtain rose, my intuition took form: A pack of A-list dancers gathered buoyantly around a table stage left, clinking glasses in symbolic toast to Mr. Bocca. Georges Bizet’s Carmen flowed from the speakers, pouring over into the house and inciting an audience-wide exhale in collective satisfaction. The backdrop transformed into a red-wallpapered living room wall, decorated with a gallery of electronic picture frames whose contents came to life, changing with the tide of the program. Each piece seemed befitting of the Bocca theme, many of them proceeded by an insightful commentary from performers past and present.

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Marcelo Gomes and Luciana Paris in My Way, photo by VAM Productions

American Ballet Theatre’s Marcelo Gomes addressed the audience (or were we party guests?) first, transitioning from his touching speech to a rascally rendition of Twyla Tharp’s “My Way” from Sinatra Suite, in which he partnered a refreshingly grounded Luciana Paris. Gomez returned later in the program with Ballet National SODRE dancer Maria Noel Riccetto to dance Macmillan’s Balcony Pas de Deux from Romeo & Juliet, serving up a performance nuanced enough to rival even the great Bocc-omeo himself. That music, and those lifts…

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Marcelo Gomes and Maria Noel Riccetto in Balcony Pas de Deux from Romeo and Juliet, photo by VAM Productions

Suave Mr. Joaquin De Luz spoke next, leading into his flirtatious performance of the Suite from Other Dances with Tiler Peck. Perhaps I was still relishing in the glow of spotting Ms. Peck leaving rehearsal Wednesday afternoon, but this pas was one of the highlights of the evening for me. The Jerome Robbins choreography seemed to flow out of Peck, as if she was creating it spontaneously right on stage. Excuse the cliché expression, but it was all so organic, as if Tiler was a wet paint brush being swept across a blank canvas by an invisible force of genius. Effervescent joy radiated from them both.

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Tiler Peck and Joaquin De Luz in Suite from Other Dances, photo by VAM Productions

The classics were certainly represented quite well, featuring an adequately impressive Don Quixote, complete with stunning balances and triple fouettés from English National Ballet’s Tamara Rojo and Isaac Hernandez, plus a jaw-dropping opening of the Black Swan pas de deux from San Fransisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz.

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Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz in Black Swan Pas de Deux, photo by VAM Productions

There were three solos presented, the first being an energetic solo from Mambo Suites danced by the dashing Gonzalo Garcia, followed by a Georgian folk dance from State Ballet of Georgia’s Nina Ananiashvili, and finally the return of Vitor Luiz to finish the show with a Bob Fosse piece which, honestly, sort of started fun and then fizzled.

Contemporary works abounded as well, most noteworthy  from Paris Opera Etoiles Isabelle Guerin and Manuel Legris. The two performed a rather moving piece of choreography that, while I admit took a while to win me over (re: the slow as heck first half), ended with a strong, emotional adieu. Though most of the contemporary works were less than thrilling (I love Yuan Yuan and Vitor, but found the choreography in their contemporary pas, Yuri Possokhov’s Final Pas de Deux from Bells, to be quite dated), there was no doubting the extreme level of professionalism on display all evening.

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Vitor Luiz in Percussion 4, photo by VAM Productions

Between performances, dancers took to the stage or screen to share stories and express their appreciation for Bocca. Artwork on the pseudo living room wall transformed to reveal coordinating sketches, vintage photos, and video clips. An on-going interview with the birthday boy himself served as endearing evidence of his contagiously upbeat spirit. In it, Bocca describes himself as being “open and honest on the stage”, a sentiment as equally proven by the footage of past performances as it was in the adoration from Bocca’s colleagues. Former partner, Natasha Makarova, for example, fills the dancer dinner party with sweet praise, remembering,

“I loved you as a partner and as a human. The combination is unique. Ah, to be able to throw myself without fear, and you would always catch me.”

JULIO BOCCA: A TRIBUTE TO A DANCE LEGEND

photo by VAM Productions

It was loving comments like these, combined with charismatic responses from Bocca which made his magnetism so irresistible. By the end of the evening, you couldn’t help but just love Julio and feel glad for the existence of this ballet legend.

 

A big THANK YOU to YAGP for having me! I will be posting a few more highlights from the week, so stay tuned. For now, in case you missed them- here are my reviews of The Final Round and The Stars of Today Meet The Stars of Tomorrow Gala. (and a bonus gala dinner post, too!)

dining with the stars

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Thursday night’s post-show gala reception was something of a fairy tale. Bearing witness to this week’s impressive display of talent was a dream come true; Being a guest at that dinner was simply a dream.

Still buzzing from the collision of stars on stage, B and I ascended the stairs to the Koch Theatre’s grand promenade, unsure just what to expect. We were met with elegant rows of long dinner tables, sheathed in crisp white linens and delicate place settings. Curve-top chairs scalloped the edges of each strip, offering a place to rest and nosh on three courses of Mediterranean mezza, roast chicken and vegetables with light, thimble-sized cupcakes for dessert. Bottles of red, white and rosé dotted the tables generously, offering a welcoming dinner party vibe at the otherwise deliciously formal affair.

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Have you ever found yourself continuously looking around wondering Is everyone here Someone? and Wait am I cool enough to be here? It is only appropriate that a gala honoring such stars of the stage be also star-studded in attendance, but the realization of this fact does not quiet the giddy fangirl within. Luckily, I was able to keep it together long enough to introduce myself and congratulate some truly inspiring people on their well-deserved success. One of my favorite conversations was shared with the evening’s honorary chair, Amy Astley, whose ongoing support of ballet education throughout the years has been not only touching but also arguably integral in the rising popularity of ballet in the fashion industry and mainstream media. She was genuinely sweet, with an endearingly open adoration of the students circulating the event in tutus and pointe shoes, donation baskets in hand.

Of course, when it came time to express my thanks to the illustrious gala co-chairs, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, my 12-year-old self struggled to the surface of my skin, revealing her awkwardly emotional appreciation of their presence which read less as “thank you for being here tonight” and a bit more like “thank you for your musical detective series and Billboard Dad and New York Minute and for designing my first ever training bra and inspiring me to experiment with peasant puffed sleeves in the early 2000s!!!!!” But yeah, don’t worry, I totally kept my cool…

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I can’t think of a more glamorous way to support young ballet dancers pursuing their dreams. There’s a special sort of heartwarming that comes with seeing the likes of Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera, Chelsea Clinton, Woody Allen and Nicky Hilton supporting ballet education in a venue so near and dear to me.

Of course the night would not be complete without a bit more dancing. And it is here that I will get strange: ABBA’s Dancing Queen has now followed me twice into euphoric evenings- first at my brother’s wedding, where I belted and shimmied through the throwback with my adorable Gma, and again Thursday night in the middle of the David H. Koch Promenade. The groovy feel-good melody seems to be somewhat of a celestial symbol for me, a reminder to pinch myself and appreciate that I am absolutely having the time of my life.

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Sidenote: Another throwback (this time of MK & A) is absolutely worth rewatching. Practice, practice, practice!

photos 5, 7, 8, 9, 10 & 14 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!