Dancers Gear Up for the 2023 USA International Ballet Competition

June 5, 2023

This month, the USA International Ballet Competition gears up for its 12th edition of festivities. Founded by renowned dancer and educator Thalia Mara, the USA IBC kicked off in 1979 and has taken place every four years since. Dancers from around the world will once again gather in Jackson, Mississippi, June 10–24, for two bustling weeks of master classes, rehearsals, and performances as they vie for medals, cash prizes, and company contracts. USA IBC welcomes 100 dancers from 17 nations; competitors, divided into senior (19–28) and junior (15–18) age divisions, were selected through a three-step video application process earlier this spring. All dancers will have the opportunity to be seen by artistic directors from companies like Houston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Philadelphia Ballet, Boston Ballet, and more.

The 2023 USA IBC international jury includes chairman John Meehan, Paloma Herrera, Ashley Wheater, Feng Ying, Frank Andersen, Angel Corella, Lauren Anderson, Stanton Welch, Hae Shik Kim, André Lewis, and Robert Curran. Dancers are judged within their age division and register to compete in either a soloist or couples category.

This year, several competitors are approaching the event as a learning experience, appreciating the opportunity to grow and develop their skills.

Onstage at YAGP, Julie Joyner performs the Aurora Act 2 variation in a sparkling white tutu. She does a piqué attitude on the croisé derriere line.
Julie Joyner at Youth American Grand Prix. Photo by LK Studios, courtesy Joyner.

Julie Joyner, 17, is well-acquainted with the ballet competition world. She cites her participation in this year’s Prix de Lausanne as her most memorable achievement thus far, having secured there not only a prize but an apprenticeship with The Royal Ballet. But participating in USA IBC, she says, will be the end of an era, as she’s decided to move away from the competition world to begin her professional career in London in the coming season.

“It’s really important to show how much I’ve grown and learned throughout my competition years,” says Joyner. “It’s because it’s a bit of a farewell for me. Surprisingly, I’m not really nervous, just extremely excited. I feel less like a student this time.”

Joyner’s classical repertoire will include the Aurora Act III, Grand Pas Classique, Princess Florine, and Paquita harp variations, each of which she has done in the past. “It’s an interesting and diverse rep for me,” she explains. “I’ve been working with my coaches, Georné Aucoin and Musashi Alvarez, focusing more on details and artistic qualities, to show how much I can add layers upon layers to these variations.”

Nasrullah Abdur-Rahman poses in attitude devant, profile. He wears dark reddish-browns ballet tights and lifts his chest up as he raises his arms overhead.
Nasrullah Abdur-Rahman. Photo by Steven Vandervelden, courtesy Abdur-Rahman.

Seventeen-year-old Nasrullah Abdur-Rahman of Boston Ballet School also looks forward to USA IBC as a means of developing his current skills. Like Joyner, Abdur-Rahman has already landed a position across the pond and will dance with Birmingham Royal Ballet 2 for its upcoming season. “I think I’ll learn more about myself doing USA IBC,” he says. “I was nervous about applying, but I know that in the long run it will be something I’ll really benefit from.”

Abdur-Rahman will perform variations from Coppélia, Paquita, The Sleeping Beauty, and Le Corsaire, in addition to two original contemporary solos set to music from the Academy Award–winning film Moonlight and the new HBO series “The Last of Us.”

While it’s been a challenge fitting in rehearsals amid a busy school schedule, Abdur-Rahman is approaching the experience as something to enjoy rather than stress over: “I have to feel confident in myself and take comfort in the way that I work. I’m just there to dance.”

Sumi Ichikawa, 19, is an apprentice at BalletMet who is relatively new to the competition world. She looks forward to competing alongside BalletMet 2 dancer Tristan Toy; they’ll perform pas de deux from Satanella, The Sleeping Beauty, Edwaard Liang’s Seasons, and Liang’s Symphonic Dances.

Sumi Ichikawa wears a white and teal ombré pancake tutu as she poses for a photo on pointe, her right leg extended in a battement devant. She rests her hands on her lower back and smiles.
Sumi Ichikawa. Photo by Scott Ciulei, courtesy BalletMet.

“I wanted to give myself a push and see what’s out there, because this is worldwide,” she says. With aspirations to dance in Europe one day, Ichikawa appreciates the opportunity to make global connections. “I looked at the jury and was so excited. I mean, you see old videos of them dancing on Instagram. They’re all incredible, so getting to take class from them will be amazing.”

Ichikawa and Toy started rehearsing last November with the help of BalletMet Academy director Dr. Maria Torija, associate director of trainees Andres Estevez, and faculty member Dmitri Suslov, taking breaks for large company productions like The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. “We just tried to find time whenever we could, and do as much as we could with the time we had,” Ichikawa says. “I’ve never done anything like Satanella or Symphonic Dances, so I’ve enjoyed working on the details for those.”

David O'Matz jumps with his right leg in an la seconde battement, his arms in an extended fourth. He looks over his pointed foot intently and is lit with a spotlight.
David O’Matz. Photo by Zavesco Photography, courtesy O’Matz.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre corps member David O’Matz, 22, has had to dodge company productions and a packed rehearsal schedule while preparing to compete. O’Matz decided to apply for USA IBC last December and has since relished tackling repertoire by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa with his partner, noncompeting PBT apprentice Ariana Chernyshev. The duo will perform the La Esmeralda and Sleeping Beauty Act III pas de deux, as well as duets from Lopez Ochoa’s Written and Forgotten and Guernica.

O’Matz and Chernyshev have worked on Written and Forgotten and Guernica with former PBT principal Julia Erickson, who is an official répétiteur for Lopez Ochoa’s works; for the classical pas de deux, they’ve rehearsed with former PBT soloist Alexandre Silva. But as O’Matz explains, the whole company has made an effort to help them prepare.

“Even though everyone’s schedule is so limited,” says O’Matz, “so many of the company dancers have taken the time to work with us in rehearsals for free, or help give corrections and partnering advice. It’s been so special to see everyone from the artistic staff to the administration, company dancers, former dancers, and even choreographers really come together and help with this process. I can’t be more grateful.” Though winning a prize or placing would be a cherry on top for O’Matz, his biggest goals are to challenge himself. “It’s an honor to represent both the U.S. and PBT, this community that’s rallied to help me perform on an international stage.”