Young, Talented And Hopeful

A look at the lure of ballet competitions and why winning isn’t everything.
Published in the June/July 2006 issue.

Sixteen-year-old Daisy Long takes the stage during the quarter-finals at Switzerland’s Prix de Lausanne, dancing the contemporary variation she’s selected—Jirí Kylián’s One of a Kind, a somber solo, set to a melancholy cello, in which she wears all black. Although Long is number 15, she’s the eighth girl to dance this piece in front of the jury members today—and after her, they will see it 18 more times.

Backstage, Long isn’t so sure she’ll make it to the next round. A well-spoken, lanky blonde, she’s been rehearsing for months and is already a veteran when it comes to competing, having attended Youth America Grand Prix (twice), Helsinki International Ballet Competition and local events in her hometown of Los Angeles.

“I would like to get a scholarship to a school in Europe,” says Long, who studies at the Marat Daukayev School of Ballet. “But I also come to get inspired and see where I should be. These girls are so good!”

Along with the possibility of catching an early glimpse of a rising star, Prix de Lausanne earned its prestige for the unique opportunities it offers—dancers between ages 15 and 17 vie for coveted spots in the world’s top ballet schools, including The Royal Ballet School, John Cranko School and the School of American Ballet. The older candidates who really impress can secure apprenticeships in companies such as American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, Stuttgart Ballet and Royal Danish Ballet. At the end of the day, the jury selects 23 dancers to continue to the semi-finals. Long doesn’t make the cut.

Despite the fierce competition, these days more and more dancers feel a pressure to compete, as many similar events crop up worldwide. Whether dancers come to network with key people in the ballet world or get a little more performance experience, they’ve no doubt heard the success stories: Jose Manuel Carreño won the grand prix at the USA International Ballet Competition in 1990; Darcey Bussell won the Prix de Lausanne in 1986; Sylvie Guillem won gold at Varna in 1983; and there are countless others. Even Mikhail Baryshnikov competed at Varna in 1966 and Moscow in 1969, picking up gold medals at both.

Danny Tidwell, a silver medalist in the junior division at 2002’s USA IBC, tells a more recent story of how competing helped his career. He had just left SAB when he decided to join friend and former Kirov Academy classmate Ashley Canterna in Jackson, Mississippi. After the competition, “Someone sent my tape to ABT,” Tidwell says. “They called me and said, ‘Do you want to be in the studio company?’” By 2003, he was in ABT’s corps de ballet. (Now he dances with Complexions Contemporary Ballet.)

International ballet competitions have been around for decades. Varna, founded in 1964, was the start of Olympic-style ballet events held every four years, but as far back as 1931, renowned dancer Adeline Genée began holding her Gold Medal Awards, which have since become the annual Genée International Ballet Competition, hosted by the Royal Academy of Dance.

Over the years, competitions have become big-money ventures. Top winners can receive as much as $15,000, as is the case in Moscow. The Prix de Lausanne operates with a cash budget of more than 1 million Swiss francs (about $780,000) and in addition to awarding cash prizes to winners, reimburses travel expenses for everyone who makes it to the semi-finals. The USA IBC’s budget for the year of the competition is $1,760,000. Additionally, according to an economic impact study, the USA IBC generated $6.2 million of revenue for the state of Mississippi during its two weeks in 2002.

In addition to monetary prizes, more are starting to offer scholarships to choice schools and even positions in companies. This year, for the first time, the USA IBC could hand out contracts to Miami City Ballet, Boston Ballet II, The Washington Ballet Studio Company and Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley. The top prize at the American Ballet Competition in June is a contract with BBII.

Despite the obvious material benefits for all involved, competitions pit artist against artist, leading many critics to lambaste them for their subjectivity, tendency to focus on tricks and failure to guarantee stardom. So how have competitions become such an integral part of so many dancers’ to-do lists?

Joshua Seibel, 16, an Arizona native who dances with Houston Ballet II, entered the Prix de Lausanne—his first competition—for the experience. Plus, he had never been out of the U.S. before. “I’d never even seen snow,” says Seibel, “so it’s been interesting. I just tried to come in with a happy attitude and to have fun.”

According to Bruce Marks, chairman of the jury at USA IBC since 1989, this is the best attitude you can have. “If you are coming here for a medal, you are probably not very bright,” he says, “because we are only going to give away 12 of those. But if you’re coming because you know it is going to be a wonderful learning experience, then you’ve already won.”

Marks says he hopes dancers focus instead on the opportunities to prepare for a professional-level performance, get the most from working with experienced teachers and coaches, meet key people in the dance world and see other dancers their age.

For Tidwell, this was the greatest benefit of competitions, which he began entering at age 12. “There was a point in my life when that was my only opportunity to take the stage,” he says. “When you are at a small school in the middle of nowhere, your recital happens once a year and you don’t get to see other boys dance.”

Australian Ballet Artistic Director David McAllister, who won the bronze in Moscow in 1985, says the camaraderie was his favorite part of the being there. “Julio Bocca won the competition I went to,” he says. “We got the experience of working with those people who then go to [companies] all over the world. You have that shared experience.”

The danger, he points out, is that competing can become addictive. “I think there are certain dancers who have careers based around a ballet competition,” says McAllister. “They go from one competition to the next until they finally win the gold medal, and then they retire and teach other kids to go to competitions.” He didn’t want that to happen to him, so, he adds, “I went to one competition and vowed I’d never do another one.”

Tidwell says this happens because being good at competing doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be right for company life. “Some dancers who do competitions or always win have a hard time coping with the corps de ballet or learning,” says Tidwell. “If you don’t like the learning process, then you’re not going to like to work…. [But most of us] want to be in the real world. We eventually want to use the power we have inside that we get from competition.”

Many say that competitions can offer students a preview of what it’s like in a professional setting—the intensive rehearsals, the coaching, etc. This is why Katherine Kersten says she wanted to start yet another competition, the American Ballet Competition, which was founded in 2004.

“There’s always room for good competitions,” says Kersten, who co-directs the ABC with Kee-Juan Han. “We felt what was really important was to help students learn the process of preparing for performances in front of a judging audience. That’s what all audiences are whenever a dancer steps out onstage.”

And as Marks says, “The process is the prize.... You learn so much, because you are trying so hard for a specific goal and for perfection. That’s what it’s really about.”

The truth is that competitions are subjective, often reward fabulous trickery and cannot realistically promise celebrated careers afterward. Once a dancer understands that, he or she can get past the desire for victory and concentrate on the educational aspect of competing.

“It’s not just about winning,” Dutch National Ballet Artistic Director Ted Brandsen says of the 2006 Prix de Lausanne, where he served on the jury. “The focus here is on the dancer as an individual. There’s a huge amount of care taken to discuss things with the dancers, whether or not they pass on [to the next round], to give them opportunity.”

After the quarter-finals, Daisy Long met with jury member Marylin Rowe, director of The Australian Ballet School, for corrections and advice. “She said I should use the floor more, get stronger and work on musicality,” Long says. “[Prix de Lausanne] really motivated me to work harder on my stamina. Many of the finalists seemed really comfortable onstage. I need to work on that.”

Now it looks like she’ll get what she came for. By the end of the competition, she had been invited to attend the John Cranko School, the Bavarian State Ballet School and the school at the Vienna State Opera Ballet. She just had to make up her mind.