Youth America Grand Prix International Dance Festival: Changing the World of Dance
Sergey Gordeev for Dancer Magazine (COVER STORY published in March 2007 issue)
“Ah, Velma… Things ain’t what they used to be!” laments Mama Morton, the famous character from “Chicago,” one of the most celebrated musicals of our time. Ironically, the words uttered by a motherly jail keeper in the 1930s could not better describe the world of dance in 2007.
Things certainly have changed. Instead of picking up a phone to catch up with a friend, we text from our omnipotent PDA’s. Youngsters log on to YouTube.com from their cell phones to get a glimpse of Sylvie Guillem, while researching tapes at the Library for the Performing Arts seems to have stayed in the 20th century. Today’s techno-savvy producers prefer color photos, videos and resumes sent via e-mail to the traditional 8x10 black-and-white photographs with stapled resumes. Instead of handing someone a portfolio, we direct them to our website.
Of all the changes that have occurred in the 21st century dance, perhaps the most dramatic is the change in how young dancers approach their dream of a professional dance career. While it is still a matter of who you know and who knows you, exactly how you get to know the people in the industry is now entirely different. This article will take an inside look at an organization that has revolutionized the process of professional development for young dancers everywhere.
When Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev launched Youth America Grand Prix in 1999, they had no idea that in 2007 it will become the largest student scholarship ballet competition in the world with an operating budget of over $1 million, offices in 4 countries outside the U.S., and $200,000 in annual scholarships to virtually every major dance academy in the world.
All they wanted to do was to find a place where they could compare their teaching methods with that of other ballet teachers and schools in the area – and when they did not find one, they decided to put one together. After talking to a few teachers and school directors, they realized that while jazz-oriented competitions and conventions abound, in America there has never been a ballet competition for students like those they remembered from their childhood at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.
While professional ballet competitions like USA IBC in Jackson, MS and the New York International Ballet Competition provided an excellent platform for exposure for professional dancers ages 15 – 25, they did not address the need of younger-age dancers for early exposure, guidance along their chosen educational and career path, and an opportunity to start honing their performance skills early enough to be on the leading school and company directors’ radars. Also, taking place every 3 or 4 years, these professional competitions did not provide an annual performance venue. Meanwhile, as the dance world kept getting younger, the younger dancers’ need for an early introduction to the ballet community remained unaddressed. And so Youth America Grand Prix was born.
“Our biggest initial challenge – and our biggest achievement to date – was to completely change the American mentality and attitude towards competitions, to break through the wall of prejudice against competitions among serious, major ballet schools,” says the Founder and Artistic Director of YAGP, Larissa Saveliev. “In 1999, participating in competitions was synonymous with being a less-than-serious ballet institution. In fact, parents of ballet students would call the schools and would make sure they do not do competitions before sending their children there.”
“Now these same schools hold internal selective rounds to determine which students deserve to represent their school at YAGP – and they schedule their spring performances so as not to conflict with our regional semi-finals in their area and our New York City Finals. Also, several other student ballet competitions recently cropped up in the U.S. using YAGP as a model. We must have done something right,” laughs Larissa. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”
How did YAGP manage to completely change the attitude in the U.S. towards competitions? Larissa stops to consider the challenge before she sums up the solution: “We promised as many talented students as we could find that they will be seen by the top dance professionals in the world; we promised directors of the top ballet schools that they will see some of the most talented students in the U.S. – and they believed us. Then we delivered both.”
If this seems simple, it was not. Larissa remembers getting on a plane from New York to Florida after two months of unsuccessful attempts to convince The Harid Conservatory to participate in YAGP. “Gordon [Wright, Director of The Harid Conservatory] was absolutely right not to want to take a meeting with me – because there was no student ballet competition in the country to speak of, and the only frame of reference he had was that of jazz conventions. So I came into his office and just sat there until he finally saw me.” By the time it was over, The Harid Conservatory had not only made an unprecedented decision to send its students to the YAGP competition, but also has agreed to host the Florida semi-finals and to become one of the charter scholarship presenters. Eight years later, YAGP continues to have a strong relationship with the Conservatory, which consistently produces outstanding students and annually offers scholarships to YAGP participants. In fact, a Harid graduate Isabella Boylston – who in 2001 won the Gold Medal in women’s junior division – is now dancing with ABT and will be performing a piece d’occasion at this year’s Gala with ABT Principal David Hallberg, choreographed by Benjamin Millepied.
When talking about the YAGP Gala, Larissa’s face lights up – as if it were possible to get any more excited than she already is – and for a good reason: the annually sold-out YAGP Gala at New York City Center featuring international ballet stars and the finalists of the competition has become one of New York ballet season’s most anticipated events. Attended by dance luminaries from around the world, last year alone it attracted the Artistic Directors of New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Bolshoi Ballet, and the Swedish Royal Ballet. Other notable audience members in past have included Natalia Makarova, Brigitte Lefevre, Judith Jamison, and a host of dance critics annually flying in from Japan, Europe, Latin America, and Canada just to get a glimpse of the future of ballet.
Of course, a major draw to the YAGP Gala is a chance to see a cross-section of the most talented ballet students from around the world. Another important reason why the Gala audience is a veritable Who’s Who in the ballet world is that it offers a chance to see something new and unusual – whether it is an unexpected pairing of dancers, an opportunity to see the works of up-and-coming new choreographers, the excitement of discovering international rising stars, or the privilege of seeing dancers and choreography not often seen in New York.
Last year alone, YAGP Gala presented a rare New York appearance of international ballet super-star, Darcey Bussell, and the New York debut of hottest European stars, Denis Matvienko and Artem Shpilevsky (Bolshoi Ballet). Matvienko was paired with David Hallberg and Gillian Murphy (ABT), Shpilevsky wowed the audience in a pas de deux with Julie Kent (ABT), and ABT’s Marcelo Gomes danced with NYCB’s Sofiane Sylve in a new work by an emerging choreographer, Adam Hougland – who got rave reviews for the piece and was subsequently selected by Pointe magazine as one of the top 10 VIP names of 2006.
For the upcoming Gala on April 30, 2007 at NY City Center the organizers have prepared an even bigger treat. Paris Opera Ballet mega-stars, Aurelie Dupont and Manuel Legris, will sparkle in a much-anticipated New York appearance, courtesy of the American Friends of Paris Opera and Ballet. Benjamin Millepied will present a piece d’occasion for a YAGP alumna Isabella Boylston and ABT Principal David Hallberg. Also on the boards is a New York debuts of The Royal Ballet’s principal dancers, Marianela Nunez and Thiago Soarez, Stuttgart Ballet’s Alicia Amatriain and Jason Reilly, and the stars of the Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro, Cecilia Kerche and Vitor Luis.
While for most participants and attendees the YAGP Gala is an unforgettable celebration of dance, for some it is a life-changing experience – as was the case for Sarah Lane, a YAGP 2002 Bronze medalist who performed in the YAGP Gala at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. Some 20 seconds into her Paquita variation, the unthinkable happened – the tape got chewed beyond repair. Unflustered, she continued dancing in silence while the entire audience sang the music till the end.
Previously overlooked at ABT company auditions because of her height (only 5’2”), that evening Sarah proved that she can hold her own on stage no matter what – and immediately after the performance she was invited to take company class, joining ABT Studio Company soon after that. “It was an amazing experience,” says Sarah, who is now dancing with the main company of ABT and has since appeared in the YAGP Gala as a professional guest artist. “I was very nervous at first, but then the nervousness melted away and I just enjoyed dancing on stage. I actually remember spotting Ethan Stiefel, who was standing in the first wing as I was doing the final diagonal.”
As it turned out, Sarah’s performance at the YAGP Gala did not only have a profound effect on her own career, but also affected a fellow ABT artist in an unexpected way. Gillian Murphy, who happened to observe Sarah’s triumphant performance that night, recalls being inspired by it when she found herself in similar circumstances some months later during a season at the Met: “Jose [Carreno] and I were dancing the White Swan pas de deux – which, as you know, is one of the quietest and the most poignant moments in the ballet – when an unruly audience member started screaming and shrieking in one of the boxes. We, of course, continued dancing – and I actually remember thinking about that girl at the YAGP Gala (whose name I didn’t even know at the time) who held herself together so admirably when she was in the same situation. And moments like these are why I love being a part of YAGP, because there is such an amazing exchange of energy between us, professional ballet artists, and the participants. We get inspired by these kids.”
And this, perhaps, is the ultimate goal of the founders of Youth America Grand Prix: to provide inspiration and an enhanced dance experience not only for its young participants, but for everyone involved, be it professional dance artists, company or school directors, parents, teachers, audience, donors, Board members, even YAGP staff. “YAGP is so much more than a competition, which is only a small component of our organization,” says Larissa. “It is an international festival of dance, a living and breathing organism, a global network that keeps working throughout the year, connecting dancers, students, festivals, companies and schools worldwide.”