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…


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.


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.”


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


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…


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.

when stars collide


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

weekend links & an announcement!


We’re heading into our final weekend of Carmen and The Little Prince this weekend, and I’m looking forward to getting back to some classical work. Today’s post features a baby picture of me dancing Satanella as a competitor in Youth America Grand Prix in celebration of this exciting announcement: I’ve been invited to attend next week’s YAGP final round and galas to review and cover as a media correspondent(!!!!!). For those of you who know me, you know this could not be a better fit, as a YAGP alumni and a hopeful future dance writer. I’ll be heading to NYC next Wednesday night to attend the final round of the competition, The Stars of Today Meet The Stars of Tomorrow gala, and the 50th birthday celebration of Julio Bocco. My bestie, B, will be joining me and helping to record and review so I can share the experience with all of you! Stay tuned!

And for now, enjoy some fun reads from around the web…

“In the end, we are all searching for stories, so collaborations allow me to collect different perspectives on the same story.” –Akram Khan and Cereal

Space Between Hours.

The Whole Dancer’s Best Body Program is enrolling- but only for a few more days! Sign up here and prepare to be your best self.

Beyoncé and Tiler Peck.

“Though retiring is scary, I know in my heart it is not a death.” -Boston Ballet “prima corps ballerina” Sarah Wroth on her decision to retire after 14 years with the company, and the bold and beautiful way she has spent her final season.

The Zarely site is full of great interviews with principal dancers from major ballet companies all over the world.

Will you be at YAGP? Want to be featured? Email me at settingthebarreblog@gmail.com to connect.

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?