Misa Kuranaga felt completely in control when she performed the Black Swan pas de deux four years ago in the first round of the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. “It was as if there was a bubble around me and nothing could go wrong,” she says. Although the Boston Ballet dancer won a gold medal, discovering that she could perform under pressure made an even greater impact on Kuranaga, who became a soloist the following year and a principal in 2009. “Knowing that I could pull something off in a hard situation like a competition,” she says, “that stayed with me and gave me confidence.”
The competition world plays an expanding role in shaping professional opportunities. Bringing home a medal makes a difference, of course, even if like Kuranaga you already dance for a major company. The greatest benefits to competing, however, are often intangible: the connections dancers make to companies and colleagues and the growth they experience as artists. In a tight economy, competitions can yield scholarships and jobs that many can’t afford to pursue piecemeal. And, as Kuranaga discovered, they can give dancers a fresh edge, inspiring directors to take a closer look at someone they may have deemed promising, but were not ready to promote.
For many dancers, saving time and money is a motive for competing. A high-profile event like USA IBC is essentially an audition for the host of attending artistic directors and school directors. “Competitions augment the audition process,” says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director and a New York International Ballet Competition judge. “It’s a great way for directors to shop for talent.”
Competitions also offer opportunities to network—in fact, some events now schedule networking right into the program. At the Prix de Lausanne, there’s an afternoon when schools set up booths to talk with potential students. Winners are not the only ones to earn scholarships. “The exposure is terrific,” says Shelly Power, associate director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy and a 2010 Prix de Lausanne judge.
However, competitions do require some investment, not only in entrance fees but also in travel, coaching and costumes. Those costs need to be factored in before a dancer decides to enter, since some schools do not cover them. When you represent a company, however, the company generally pays for all costs. Fees, rules and regulations are clearly laid out on each competition website (see below).
Most schools and companies select the dancers who will compete. Anna Reznik, co-artistic director of Chicago’s Joffrey Academy of Dance, had seven students qualify for the Youth America Grand Prix finals, yet only the four whom the school deemed most mature went on to the final round in New York. “We look for students who consider a competition a learning experience,” says Reznik. “If you are just about prizes and medals, it’s a dangerous situation.” Many school directors agree those too focused on winning have problems even when they do well. They return to class with unreasonable expectations or become overanxious about the quality of their dancing if they don’t receive an award.
While dancers can still enter and compete if their schools do not select them, they may not be able to use their school affiliation. There can be advantages to going anyway. Dancers as successful as San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova have taken on the competition world solo and come back with contacts, and in some cases, jobs. However, it does mean you have chosen to ignore the school’s judgment on your readiness.
Only a handful of dancers walk away with medals. But losing often means far less than dancers fear. “I got offered my contract with Colorado Ballet right after I was eliminated,” says Andrew Skeels, who competed in USA IBC in 2006. “For me, it was like winning a gold medal.”
For some, the stress of competing outweighs any potential benefit. But if you have resilience, breaking yourself into the ongoing competitiveness of professional ballet might be another benefit. “The competition doesn’t stop when you are in a company,” says Welch. “You will still be auditioning for visiting choreographers; it’s just part of company life.”
If you decide to compete, remember that most dancers make their share of bloopers. Bruce Marks, chairman of the jury at the USA IBC, has seen even the greatest fail. “It’s not about being perfect,” he says. “Gelsey Kirkland fell down; if you are not falling, you are not trying anything. Bravery counts, but in the end, the process is the prize.”
Mistakes to Avoid:
A less-than-professional DVD. Most competitions require a DVD with entrance applications. While some competitors may be tempted to include more than what the application specifies—say, clips of all of their best performances—it will not increase their chances. “Make sure you read the requirement closely, and submit not more, not less, than what’s asked for,” advises Houston Ballet’s Shelly Power. “This is not the time to be creative.”
An overly-ambitious variation. Except for NYIBC, where students spend two weeks learning their variations on site, most competitions ask that you arrive with a classical and a contemporary variation already polished. Many students make the mistake of picking something that they always wanted to learn, even if it’s beyond their reach. “Pick a variation that suits you,” says Larissa Saveliev, co-founder of YAGP. “Often, that’s not the same as the one you like.”
Acting unprofessionally at the competition. Keep in mind that a competition can have the same impact on your future as an audition—people are watching you. Try to control your nerves and treat fellow competitors like colleagues. “There are other people around you backstage and in class,”says Saveliev. “Learn to share the space. That’s what will happen when you are in a company.” —NW
A competition doesn’t need the word “ballet” in its title to make a difference in your career. New York City Dance Alliance has long been a favorite with ballet dancers. Although NYCDA showcases versatile dancers, the competition, founded by Joe Lanteri, puts ballet front and center.
NYCDA has judges and faculty with deep ballet resumés. People like Duncan Cooper (San Francisco Ballet), Scott Jovovitch (Joffrey Ballet) and Daniel Catanach (Armitage Ballet) teach at NYCDA?alongside top jazz, tap and modern instructors. The ballet world pays attention to those who win the top ballet award. A number of the competitors have gone on to work at leading companies, including Boston Ballet’s Whitney Jensen and Melissa Hough, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s Jon Bond and New York City Ballet’s Brittany Pollack.
Lanteri, a stickler for classical training, finds focusing on ballet benefits all of his competitors. Building and keeping a strong classical foundation helps dancers in other genres, and Lanteri likes to send the message that they are not going to get too far without ballet training. “We are so proud of the impact our NYCDA dancers have had in the professional ballet world,” he says. “It’s exciting to see these young dancers, who have valued technique throughout their convention years, transition into major companies. It really validates the emphasis we’ve put on bringing teachers from the professional world of ballet.” —NW
For Competition Details:
The American Dance Competition
Beijing International Ballet Invitational
Genée International Ballet Competition
New York City Dance Alliance
New York International Ballet Competition
Prix de Lausanne
USA International Ballet Competition
Youth America Grand Prix
Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston, TX.