Youth America Grand Prix, 2017
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

April 13, and 14, 2017
Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow; Tribute to a Dance Legend – Julio Bocca

— by Jerry Hochman

The Youth America Grand Prix completed its New York Final Round last week, following six days of competition, master classes, rehearsals and camaraderie. The results and a commentary are provided in a separate review.

For those living in a bubble, YAGP, founded 18 years ago by former Bolshoi Ballet dancers Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev (the latter also a former American Ballet Theatre soloist), has become the world’s largest dance network, connecting young dancers with teachers, schools, administrators, and other young dancers internationally. Its annual competition draws over 10,000 entrants. I initially was wary of the notion of artistic competitions for awards, and to an extent still question whether medals are prophetic or just stimulation, but there’s no denying that the young dancers gain and grow as a result of their participation. And prestigious as the awards may be, the exposure, contractual opportunities, and scholarships YAGP facilitates are recognized, and emphasized, as being more important than its medals.

While the competition itself and the participating young dancers are its raison d’etre, annual celebratory galas are an essential component of the “YAGP experience” as well. In addition to providing obvious fundraising potential, these galas increase YAGP’s presence among the ballet-going public-at-large, promote a connection between YAGP participation and an eventual professional dance career, and occasionally provide the opportunity for audiences to see some fabulous and bravura performances.

This year YAGP presented two galas – its annual Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala (STMST), and one of its irregularly scheduled Tributes to Dance Legends – the honoree on this occasion being Julio Bocca.

In recent years the Stars of Today section of the STMST galas didn’t live up to the hype, notwithstanding some excellent individual performances. This year, however, and except for some inexplicable fizzle in the second “Act” of the April 14 gala and relatively minor glitches that seem to be an inevitable norm, the two galas were the finest YAGP gala presentations and performances in the years that I’ve been attending them. If one didn’t leave the theater flying after the July 13 program and at least through intermission of the gala the next night, one simply wasn’t paying attention.

The galas’ highlights among highlights included an excerpt from David Dawkins’s reimagining of Swan Lake (performed by Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie), the presentation and execution of the Balcony Pas de Deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet by Marcelo Gomes and Maria Noel Riccetto, Lucia Lacarra’s still astonishing flexibility and liquidity and Isabel Guerin’s still potent dance artistry, Nina Ananiashvili flying onto the stage as the Julio Bocca Tribute came to a close, Bruce Marks’s inspirational words upon acceptance of YAGP’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and Tamara Rojo delivering performances at each event that simply defied belief.

Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow

Regardless of the quality of the Stars of Today section of the STMST gala, the Stars of Tomorrow section, the evening’s first “Act,” is always astonishingly good: these teens and preteens can’t possibly be as fabulously talented and poised as they are. It’s also somewhat mysterious: not everyone knows the identifies of those selected to perform – the young dancers are chosen not just because they won awards, though many did (awards had not yet been formally announced), but also to present an entertaining evening, alternating between classical and contemporary solo performances, pas de deux, and ensemble pieces.

Eleven year old Brady Farrar, from the U.S.A., who won the Hope Award (the equivalent of the Grand Prix in the pre-competitive ages 9-11 grouping), opened the evening with a clean-as-a-whistle execution of a solo variation from Talisman. He was followed by Linyue Zhao, 18, from the P. R. of China, dancing a contemporary solo: Room. A pas de deux from Coppelia (the coda) followed, danced by Antonio Casalinho (age 13) from the Academia Anarrella, Portugal, and Avery Gay (age 12) from the Master Ballet Academy, U.S.A. Casalinho impressed with his solid technique and demeanor, and Gay is a dancer with the strength and extension that would be the envy of those many years her senior. The couple received first place in the classical pas de deux category. Ten young women dancers from the Classical Ballet Academy (U.S.A.) then presented a contemporary ensemble dance titled Existence, a clever piece for ten young women ages 8 to 20 and a large, round, billowy piece of what might have been nylon parachute cloth with strategically-placed cutouts. Takumi Miyaki, age 13, followed with a solo variation from Swan Lake. Miyaki, who hails from Japan and delivered a crystalline performance of the same variation the previous night, won First Place among the Junior Men.

Jan Spunda, age 18, from the Czech Republic (English National Ballet School), bare-chested and wearing black tights, then danced a spellbinding contemporary solo of uncommon intensity choreographed by Jin Hao Zhang): Swan. In the Finals program the previous night, Spunda, who tied for 3rd place among the Senior Men, masterfully executed a variation from Sleeping Beauty. Chloe Misseldine (15), from the U.S.A., who won 2nd place among the Senior Women, followed with a sublimely delicate performance of the Queen of the Dryads variation from Don Quixote, and then Diogo De Oliveira, age 18 from Portugal, performed a weighted, almost tribal into-the-ground contemporary solo aptly titled Terra. Madison Penny (12), from the U.S.A., who won the Junior Grand Prix (there was no Senior Grand Prix awarded this year), then brought the house down with her La Esmeralda variation, as she did the previous night. Luciano Perotto, 19, from the U.S.A.,  followed with a gripping solo: Lacrymosa (choreographed by the late Edward Stierle), after which the Senior Men’s first place winner Taro Kurachi (18; U.S.A.) flew through his solo variation from Don Quixote, wowing the audience as he had the previous night.

The first half concluded with the annual, and annually glorious, Grand Defile, a superbly executed piece d’occasion that’s not only celebratory, but spectacularly exciting to watch. Once again, kudos to choreographer Carlos dos Santos, his assistants, and the 300 or so young dancers from 33 different countries speaking 13 different languages for a thrilling presentation, and for demonstrating yet again that ballet is a universal language.

As fine a job as these individual young dancers did, however, the most memorable performance in this half of the program – or the entire evening for that matter – may not have been a performance. Following a brief but sweetly effusive introduction from Nina Ananiashvili, Bruce Marks, 2017 recipient of YAGP’s Lifetime Achievement Award, delivered an exceptionally powerful address. Marks, who followed his successes as a Principal Dancer with a Ballet Theatre with equally memorable stints as Artistic Director of Ballet West and then Boston Ballet, initially described his pedagogic style, which teaches not just steps and technique, but “transitions” and the “humanity of dance,” and that recognizes that the most important quality in a dancer is not just doing the steps perfectly, but the ability to inspire an audience. He followed this with a peppery clarion call, to chees from the audience, to fight back against ill-conceived proposed cuts in funding for programs that support dance, such as the National Endowment for the Arts.

Despite some individual noteworthy performances, the Stars of Tomorrow portion of STMST has of late been bogged down with “cutting edge” contemporary dances that simply didn’t measure up. This year’s iteration was different, and considerably better. While I may have preferred one over another, there wasn’t a weak dance in the bunch. I’ll address in some detail those pieces that were particularly noteworthy, and list others seriatim. If it seems as if I’m giving some short shrift, it’s not because of any lack of quality.

The evening opened with Tiler Peck, a New York City Ballet principal who I described years ago as a world class dancer whose performances you miss at your peril, and Zachary Catazaro, a NYCB soloist, dancing the “Heaven’s Ballet” Pas de Deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s Carousel, A Dance. Very nicely done. Brittany O’Connor and Paul Barris, billed as world ballroom champions, took Dancing With the Stars to another level with a sizzling performance of Besame Mucho, which the pair choreographed to the 1940 song by Mexican songwriter Consuelo Vasquez. There was nothing 40s about it.

In its 2013 STMST gala, YAGP presented Marcelo Gomes’s Tous Les Jours, a solo piece danced by NYCB’s Chase Finlay about the frustration of feeling trapped doing the same things every day. My reaction was frustration envy. Gomes’s Tous Les Jours II, presented on Thursday’s program, is another solo piece (also choreographed to music by Karen LeFrak), but here Gomes’s protagonist isn’t trapped at all. If anything, the piece describes the absence of any sense of limitation, and can be seen as self-celebration. Pieces like this don’t pull me in, but Gomes’s choreography is skillful, and James Whiteside (an unannounced replacement for Xander Parish) did a fine job with it.

Asaf Messerer’s Spring Waters Pas de Deux invariably generates excitement because of its combination of lyricism and power, its soaring leaps and spectacular lifts. It’s been around a long time, and never ceases to impress an audience. But it requires an equally impressive performance, which Skylar Brandt and Gabe Stone Shayer, both with ABT and both YAGP alumnae, delivered. But as finely done as it was, there wasn’t anything unusually special about it until the end. As Brandt raced toward Shayer, turned, and leaped ready to be received and bicycle-lifted up and away, the timing was a bit off, and instead of landing on his hand on the way up, she landed on the way down. Those in my vicinity who knew what was supposed to happen all gasped simultaneously, and he almost dropped her. But in one of the most memorable saves I’ve seen, Shayer managed to reverse the noticeable downward motion, and, from below his waist, pumped Brandt (who maintained her composure throughout) up and above his head properly, and they ran off into the wings to the audience’s cheers – and relief.

Having said that this year’s program didn’t get bogged down in contemporary dances that didn’t measure up doesn’t mean there weren’t contemporary dances. The most intriguing of them was the U.S. premiere of the White Swan Pas de Deux from David Dawson’s Swan Lake, which he choreographed for the Scottish Ballet in 2015. To say it’s not what one might expect from a Swan Lake would be an understatement. Dawson, whose piece A Million Kisses to My Skin impressed me when Pacific Northwest Ballet presented it here in February, 2016, choreographs the classic story in a contemporary manner. This White Swan is a bird of a different feather. Although I’ll reserve judgment until I have the opportunity to see the full piece, as reflected in this pas de deux Dawson seems to have stripped Swan Lake to its emotional essence. Everything is different (except the Tchaikovsky score), yet somehow everything is still the same. The passion and pathos are all there, but accoutrements of the story beyond the White Swan and her partner in pain – and at times in swan-like movement – are absent. At first it was jarring. But, enhanced by the passionate execution by National Ballet of Canada principals Svetlana Lunkina and Evan McKie, it grew to be as moving – if not more so – than versions based on Petipa/Ivanov. Instead of being a disastrous re-imagining, as I initially thought, this is extraordinarily compelling choreography – at least based on this excerpt. I hope to see more of it.

When Parson Dance recently appeared at the Joyce Theater, included on the program was an excerpt from David Parson’s Caught, danced by company member Ian Spring. Even in excerpt, its skillful use of strobe lighting (and Spring’s impeccable timing as he was “caught” between bursts of light) provided a memorable experience. Following the White Swan Pas de Deux, Spring here performed the complete dance. The piece, and Spring’s execution, strobe-lit up the audience.

Lucia Lacarra, a Spanish (Basque)-born ballerina who has danced with many companies throughout he career, and her partner Marlon Dino, both now with the Bayerisches Staatsballett, followed with the pas de deux from Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain. I prefer the pas de deux in the context of the larger piece – by itself it’s just too sultry and sensually intense (if that’s possible), but here Lacarra and Dino took the intensity to another level. Lacarra, whose bones (if she has any) must be made of rubber, was molten – cool as liquid glass, but hot as lava. And hunk-like Dino (a compliment) manipulated her as if she were weightless. It was a remarkable exhibition.

The evening ended with perhaps the most remarkable performance of them all: the Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire, danced by Tamara Rojo, former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet who now directs the English National Ballet, and Cesar Corrales, a YAGP alumnus who dances with ENB. Corrales, a young dancer with seemingly boundless energy, delivered the male pas de deux variations with impossible ballon and stage-gobbling leaps – as well as the inevitable show-off tricks that, at least for this pas de deux, are de regueur. A little trepidatious at first, Rojo overcame that quickly, and proceeded to put on a clinic. I’d never previously seen Rojo dance live, and she blew me away.

And she gave an even more impressive performance the next night.

Julio Bocca: Tribute to a Dance Legend

The Julio Bocca Tribute Gala was about more than the performances that comprised it. The Tribute was quite obviously a labor of love for everyone involved, from Marcelo Gomes’s heartfelt introductory remarks through to the stage party at the evening’s conclusion. Even given some unfortunate choreographic choices in the second half of the program, most every aspect of the evening’s intelligently conceived staging, and every performance without exception, was top notch. It wasn’t flawless, but few events of this nature are.

If there was one “theme” that carried through the entire evening, it was that Bocca is admired, respected, and honored not just as a great dancer, but also a great human being. And that it’s far easier for me to begin this review by describing things that were not handled well, or that were inexplicably missing or hidden from audience view, reflects only on how wonderful everything else was.

The evening’s opening “piece” was an introduction to Bocca’s Tribute, and to his concurrently celebrated birthday – his 50th. As the staged piece evolved, various personages emerged from upstage shadows and partied around a large rectangular table. Their identifies were not indicated either in the program or on any stage projection, so identifying them was difficult, but upon seeing Gomes, I understood that the celebrants were those who would later be performing. But I subsequently learned that many in this celebration party were not performing, but were connected to Bocca by having danced with him. Not to have identified all the dancers – and anyone else – on stage, and consequently not knowing who I (and probably the bulk of the audience) missed seeing, was an unfortunate oversight that might have been easily rectified.

The program’s staging overall was quite remarkable. The upstage rear “wall” was either in whole or in part a projection, onto which multiple “framed pictures” were “hung,” most of which contained individually projected images that changed and/or came alive as videos as the evening progressed. Most of the time the segues between the videos (or still images) and the live stage performance were handled seamlessly. But at times the projected images and videos, which were not identified, were difficult to decipher as to content or significance, and seemed to have little connection to what had just been, or would subsequently be, presented on stage. And sound quality that might have been helpful was often difficult to comprehend. Another minor problem that could have been easily corrected.

My finally nitpicky complaint is more substantive. It was wonderful to include the tributes that were presented – particularly the projection of a letter written for the occasion and read aloud (via recording) by its author: Natalia Makarova. But for an evening that obviously was intelligently planned, the failure to mention, much less include, salutations from certain ballerinas who Bocca famously partnered throughout his ABT career (Cheryl Yeager and Alessandra Ferri come immediately to mind) is inexplicable.

But in the overall scheme of things, the program was so good that these quibbles don’t really matter.

Generally, the performances throughout the evening were connected to Bocca either by dancers he partnered or mentored, or by dances (or dance styles) he performed, or both.

The evening began (after the “party”) with Gomes and Luciana Paris, an ABT soloist who Bocca partnered when he appeared with Ballet Argentina, dancing excerpts from Twyla Tharp’s Sinatra Suite. Cecilia Figaredo and Hernan Piquin, described as “international tango performers,” then performed a sensationally dramatic tango, featuring jaw-dropping lifts, to Astor Piazzolla’s Michelangelo 70.

NYCB principal Joaquin De Luz spoke (via video) of his youthful idolatry of Bocca (“he inspired me to dream big”), and then danced a suite of dances from Jerome Robbins’s Other Dances with Peck, who delivered a performance of great depth and technical facility.
Other Dances, of course, was created in 1976 on Natalia Makarova (and Mikhail Baryshnikov), and the performance of this piece segued neatly into the letter from Makarova in Bocca’s honor, and then to Bocca in a filmed recounting of his experiences dancing Romeo to Makarova’s Juliet (“It took my whole career to grow up in this character. Romeo was part of my growing up as a man…This is the first time I felt like an artist.”), then to Makarova and Bocca shown in a filmed excerpt from the Balcony Scene from Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet, which itself then segued seamlessly to the performance of the same scene by Gomes and the ballerina who Bocca reportedly persuaded to leave ABT and join him at Uruguay’s Ballet Nacional SODRE, Maria Noel Riccetto (Riccetto also provided a video tribute). The pas de deux is glorious even with less than distinguished performances, but here the execution was alive with passion and illuminated from within each of them. The entire sequence was presented, staged, and executed brilliantly; it took your breath away, and even absent the ballet’s concluding scream, left you teary. I’ve written that I might not forgive Bocca for stealing Riccetto from ABT – but this gala provided the opportunity to see her dance a role, or at least part of one, that I thought I’d never get to see, so all is forgiven.

San Francisco Ballet’s Yuan Yuan Tan and Vitor Luiz followed with the final Pas de Deux from Yuri Possokhov’s Bells (which the Joffrey Ballet recently presented in full in NY during its recent “homecoming” set of performances). Seeing Tan’s mesmerizing fluidity in anything is a joy, and this pas de deux emphasizes it.

The first half of the program concluded with Bocca recounting his experiences as Basil in Don Quixote (unlike Romeo, this role came easy to him), followed by Rojo and Isaac Hernandez (another YAGP alumnus now a member of ENB) dancing the Don Quixote Pas de Deux. Hernandez danced his role exceptionally well, but, as with Le Corsaire the previous night, this was Rojo’s show. It wasn’t “just” her astonishing fouettes, pirouettes, and impossibly extended balances en pointe – it was her characterization as well. And unlike the previous night, this time Rojo was having a blast, and the fun was contagious. If the Gala had ended on this note, it would have been enough.

Act II began with NYCB principal Gonzalo Garcia dancing a solo from Mambo Suite, choreographed by Ana Maria Stekelman to music by Perez Prado, followed by a film clip apparently showing Bocca dancing the same piece. The piece does nothing more than visualize the music, which is fine, and Garcia did a very fine job with it. Lekuri is a Georgian folk dance, and Ananiashvili’s execution of the increasingly complex footwork, wearing what appears to have been a Georgian folk costume, was sublime. Tan and Luiz followed with an except from the “standard” Petipa Black Swan Pas de Deux, but out of even full pas de deux context the excerpt left a less than vivid impression. Lacarra and Dino returned with the U.S. premiere of Russell Maliphant’s Spiral, to music by Max Richter. This is another piece that emphasizes Lacarra’s astonishing flexibility, and Dino’s skill in handling her as if she was gelatin.

Presente is another tango choreographed to music by Astor Piazolla, this time by Analia Gonzalez, and it received its world premiere at this performance. It’s not an exceptional piece, but the execution by Paris and Rodrigo Colomba (from the Teatro Folklorico Nacional-Argentina) was. And Paris’s effervescence and enthusiasm (and apparent elation that they pulled it off) made the performance look even better.

Farewell Waltz, by Patrick De Bana, which was given its NY premiere, is an unusually enigmatic dance. The stage is bare except for two beds, one set upstage left, the other downstage night. The dancers, Isabelle Guerin and Manuel Legris, both Paris Opera Ballet Etoiles, are in a relationship in some sort of crisis – whether the couple is breaking up because one is dying, or just breaking up, or just suffering on general principles, isn’t clear, but it’s a deceptively simple-looking, heart-wrenching piece, performed by both dancers with exquisitely understated but inescapable emotion. Guerin’s performance was particularly extraordinary – it was difficult to take your eyes off her, both because she was magnetic, and because you might miss something that came and was gone from her face and body in an instant. The pair converted what might have been an inexplicably dense and vacuous emotional encounter into something that was painfully luminous.

Following Luiz’s performance of Bob Fosse’s Percussion 4, which did not appear to have any reason for being included on the program, the evening concluded with a piece d’occasion – essentially, a return to the banquet/drinking table and the celebration around it when the Tribute began, but that provided the opportunity for brief encores from each of the evening’s performers. Except for Ananiashvili’s jet-propelled flight onto the stage (she emerged from the left wing as if she’d been shot from a cannon), the only memorable part of it was the throng of celebrants “coaxing” Bocca onto the stage to join the party, and Bocca himself seemingly enjoying every second of it. Although the second half of the program was somewhat of a letdown (particularly after the fantastic first half), seeing Bocca enjoying himself was a splendid way to end the event, and the YAGP 2017 season.