New Athenaeum Theatre (September 26 & 27, 2013) & Theatre Royal (September 29), Glasgow, UK       

David Mead       

Silver medallist Isabelle Brouwers in her classical variation, 'La Bayadère' Act III, 2nd Girl. Photo © Andrew Ross

Silver medallist Isabelle Brouwers in her classical variation, ‘La Bayadère’ Act III, 2nd Girl.
Photo © Andrew Ross

In the end there were no gold medals, but for most of the Glasgow audience that really didn’t seem to matter too much as they almost cheered the roof off the city’s elegant Theatre Royal during the final presentation ceremony.

And why not? It had been an enjoyable evening of dance from the twelve 16 to 19 year old dancers.Being held in the city for the first time, promoted by the Royal Academy of Dance and co-hosted by the Scottish Ballet and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, this year’s two-day semi-final featured 49 females and 9 males from 15 countries. To enter, dancers must be aged between 15 and 19 and not have been employed on a professional contract. Entrants must also have passed the Academy’s Advanced 2 examination with distinction or been presented with the Solo Seal Award. If you haven’t, and you’re not a member of the Academy, you can’t take part, even if you’re the best in the world. That’s perfectly fine of course, but it is important to recognise it is limiting, and it does make the Genée a little different from other international ballet competitions.

Day one of the semi-final at the Conservatoire’s New Athenaeum Theatre saw the dancers perform class centre work. Day two featured ‘Dancer’s Own’, in which each had to perform a work of 1-1½ minutes (in pointe shoes for the girls), choreographed by themselves, their teacher or a peer to a piece of music of their choice; and their classical variation, chosen from a prescribed list. From the 58 hopefuls, Desmond Kelly, former Assistant Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet; Cynthia Harvey, former Principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre and The Royal Ballet; and Christopher Hampson selected 12 for the final.

On day one, it was hard to escape the feeling that many of the candidates didn’t really ‘sell’ themselves. I’m not sure whether there was a subconscious feeling that it was ‘only class’ and not really part of the competition, but it was there. It was spotted by the panel too. At the announcement of the twelve finalists, panel chair Desmond Kelly reminded the dancers that when they go for audition, it starts with class. Doing well in class may not get you the job or school place on its own, but ‘coasting it’ or ‘hiding’ can kill your chances, he emphasised.

Very few dancers were consistently good. Worryingly, many seemed to lack musicality. It was striking how often, when dancing in twos or threes, one would be a count or so out of time with the others. Given that they had been practicing the exercises in class all week (with one grand allegro exception), presumably to the same music, that was somewhat concerning. That ‘set syllabus-style’ may also have accounted for some of the rather mechanical performance of the exercises from some. Oh for some expression. Quite why such an approach to dance is necessary at this level is beyond me (actually, it’s bad full stop if that’s the primary teaching/learning style). Part of dancing is being able to pick up steps quickly and perform them well; so let’s see it. Many also showed a reluctance to travel. I lost count of the number who managed to perform a failli-assemblé pretty much on the spot. Dropping the raised leg in a fouetté was another issue. There were some stand out candidates though, and the males were all notably excellent at batterie.

Bronze medallist Rory Ferguson performing his Dancer’s Own choreography, 'Just Singin’.' Photo © Andrew Ross

Bronze medallist Rory Ferguson performing his Dancer’s Own choreography, ‘Just Singin’.’
Photo © Andrew Ross

On day two, while the dancers gave their all in performance, too much of the choreography in the Dancer’s Own section was less than inspired. It was hard to break away from the impression that the dancers and/or choreographers (probably both) wanted to show something of everything. If their solo was contemporary or edgy, they also felt the need to insert a few out and out classical steps, and vice-versa. That’s understandable, but this was a choreography competition within the overall competition, so the choreography did matter. In 90 seconds or so, you it’s nigh on impossible to show everything and remain coherent.

So, a few notes for budding choreographers…Inserting a flexed foot out of nowhere into a very classical sequence, or rolling around on the bottom, does not only not make a solo contemporary, it frequently looks really out of place. Rolling round like that in pointe shoes can also look clumsy. It often did here. At one point so many dancers in a row did it that I felt like screaming! Similarly, suddenly throwing a series of very classical fouetté rond de jambs into a contemporary piece just because a dancer or choreographer feels the need to show them, or thinks they can do them well (and in Glasgow it was sometimes, ‘thinks’), does not make it classical. It just looks odd. The best pieces are ones that pick a theme and style and stick to it.

There were some gems in there, though. As always, the best pieces seemed to be those that reflected the dancer’s character. Interestingly, the males’ solos seemed to do this far more than the females’. The boys’ choreographies definitely had more variety, variation and invention. You can argue that is partly because they don’t have to use pointework, but pointe shoes are only restrictive in the mind.

A thoughtful Rory Ferguson waiting in the wings. Photo © Andrew Ross

A thoughtful Rory Ferguson waiting in the wings.
Photo © Andrew Ross

Although not my favourite, I wasn’t going to argue too much with the panel’s choice for the Dancer’s Own Award: “Computer Virus” from 16-year old Padua Eaton, a student at Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Elmhurst School of Dance. Eaton looked a real livewire, and her short dance, to Daft Punk’s “The Grid”, was edgy and spiky, with some inventive pointework.

I have some sympathy with the dancers when it comes to the classical variations. It can be very hard to get much in the way of personal interpretation or sensitivity into a dance that’s not only less than two minutes but also being performed away from context. I also couldn’t help finding the list of variations disappointing. Both the boys and girls could choose from 11, but in both cases nine of them were from the nineteenth century. The girls didn’t even get much of choice of ballets with four coming from “Raymonda” and three from “La Bayadère”. The most recent on either list was from MacMillan’s “Danses Concertatntes”, which hails from 1955. Yes, the big nineteenth-century classics are the foundation of ballet, but the list was hardly representative of what it is today. The art form has moved on. It did develop in the second half of the 20th century.

Interestingly, the most popular variation among the girls was “Summer” from Ashton’s “Cinderella”. It’s not a sparkly showpiece. It doesn’t have the flashy leaps and extensions of many of the others on the list, but done well it is jam packed full of sensuality and emotion. It also requires quite a lot of strength and control, most notably in the difficult sequence of relatively slow double pirouettes into arabesque. Every tiny mistake or hesitation is very obvious. All told, it is seriously tricky to get right. And did Maki Sekuzu (also from Elmhurst) get it right! Her classical technique was clean with every turn finishing exactly where it should without the need to any tiny adjustments. Best of all though, what wonderful use of the arms and back. If Fred was up there watching, I think he might have been pretty happy.

There were some other gems too. I particularly enjoyed Isabelle Brouwers’ (English National Ballet School; second variation from Act III of “La Bayadère”), Katie Rogers’ (Royal Conservatoire; principal variation, Danses Concertatntes), and John Rhys Halliwell (English National Ballet School; Blue Boy, “Les Patineurs”), all of who made the final. How great to see Jodie Herron (Pro Arte School, Vancouver) get there too. Her “Summer” from “Cinderella” was radiant and full of sunshine until she unfortunately slipped. But she immediately regained her composure and carried on as if nothing had happened. It just shows that falling is not necessarily the end of the world. How you deal with it can be.

The twelve Genée finalists. Photo © Andrew Ross

The twelve Genée finalists.
Photo © Andrew Ross

For the final, held across the street at the Theatre Royal, the dancers again danced their own solo and classical variation, plus a new solo by Toronto-born choreographer Robert Binet. A new panel of RAD President Darcey Bussell, Royal Ballet Director Kevin O’Hare and Hampson took up the judging duties; and tricky duties they were too.

In the Dancer’s Own section it seemed like everyone had upped their game. The stage oozed personality. I enjoyed Sekuzu’s perky dance that had a hint of jazzy inflection and some fast footwork. There were plenty of Glaswegian cheers for the home dancer Natasha Watson from Ballet West, and for Rory Ferguson, who might have a good Scottish name but who actually hails from Australia. Ferguson’s “Just Singin’” to a version of “Singin’ in the Rain” was a real cheeky chappie affair from a dancer who looks bound for musical theatre rather than classical ballet.

Robert Binet’s new choreographies for the competition took a while to grow on you, but the more I saw of “Free Verse” for the girls and “Open Form” for the boys, both to Prokofiev piano pieces, the more I liked. Some of the dancers seemed able to put a personal stamp on them much more than others. Sekuzu was sparky, accenting sharply each position. Others interpreted it in a more lyrical way, while Larissa Crafford-Lazarus definitely seemed to have some sort of backstory in her mind, her version being full of different moods. It’s difficult to judge on just a few minutes of dance, but Binet looks to be someone worth keeping an eye on.

There were no real stand-out performances among the classical solos, which although generally well-danced, did feature one or two stutters and hesitations. Sadly, that included from Sekuzu, who chose the most important moment to give easily her least convincing performance of the competition. While she was comfortably the best all-round dancer for me over the Genée as a whole, there’s a lot to be said for one who can produce the goods when it matters – and on this occasion she didn’t. It probably cost her a medal.

Sasha Leong, silver medallist, performing 'I am Waiting Music' in the Dancer’s Own section.  Photo © Andrew Ross

Sasha Leong, silver medallist, performing ‘I am Waiting Music’ in the Dancer’s Own section.
Photo © Andrew Ross

Very good again was Brouwers, and it was no surprise when she picked up a silver medal. More silvers went to Sasha Leong of the Sydney Ballet School, who danced the first variation from “La Bayadère” Act III; and to home medallist Watson.

Needless to say, the boys went down well with the audience. Ferguson rounded the competition off with another crowd pleaser, the well-known variation from Act III or “Le Corsaire”, although his jumps, while high, were not as tight as they could have been. Still, he all-round performance was enough for a bronze medal, with a second bronze going to Rhys Halliwell, who reminded me and others of a very young Steven McRae. It was no surprise when Rhys Halliwell also picked up the Audience Choice Award, voted for by audience.

The pros and cons of ballet competitions have been long debated, and no doubt will continue to be so. One artistic director of a top conservatoire in Europe recently described them to me as “all a bit of a circus” and something of a sideshow that takes time away from their prime task of developing dancers as artists; a view that I have a great deal of sympathy with. Although Elmhurst and the ENB School were represented in Glasgow, many such schools also do not encourage students to take syllabus work by such as the RAD, again feeling it detracts from the main business.

But there are plusses, and they are important ones. Competitions do give young dancers to chance to network and meet others, often from other parts of the world; to learn; and to perform, often in a pressured situation. On the whole, dancers do enjoy it. It does add to their experience. The inclusion of things like Dancer’s Own at the Genée also helps move the emphasis away from being wholly on the old warhorse variations (although not far enough), and lets audiences see not only more of the dancer, but the real dancer. When it comes to classical solos, though, dancers please remember that there can be a world of difference between one you’ve always loved or wanted to dance, and one that is suitable. Be ambitious by all means, just don’t be overly-ambitious. And while everyone wants to do well, if winning is the only reason you are entering, there’s a problem.

Perhaps best of all, competitions do help promote the art form. In Glasgow, the Genée gave ballet a wealth of local publicity. The RAD should be congratulated for holding the 2013 competition over a holiday weekend, with sensible pricing and concessions. Audiences responded and included a significant number of youngsters. Those I spoke to certainly enjoyed themselves, and hopefully went away inspired to work hard and improve, and hopefully to go along to more performances. And that can’t be a bad thing, can it?

The 2014 Genée will be in Antwerp, Belgium, also at the end of September.