Youth America Grand Prix, 2018
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

April 19, 2018
Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow; 

Jerry Hochman

Like The Final Round, this year’s YAGP Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala went off very smoothly, but for one hitch that was not YAGP’s doing. Indeed, at least in terms of organization, this year’s incarnation was superior to those I’ve previously seen.

Having the Grand Defile moved to the end of the program was a definite improvement, and the introductions, including the introductory titles, for each of the individual performances were fun to watch. Keeping the music, as fine as it was, confined to the stage right apron (with one exception) was also a good idea. Except for one or two unexplained sound delays during certain pas de deux, it all ran like a Swiss watch. And, possibly to accommodate a post-Gala Gala Reception on the DHK Theater Promenade (to my recollection, the first time it’s been held at that place and time), the evening’s roughly 2 ½ hour program was presented with no intermission. That was a benefit as well – but next year it should be announced in advance. All in all, it was a highly entertaining evening.

The hitch was the absence of the gala’s headline stars, Bolshoi Ballet’s Olga Smirnova and Jacopo Tissi, because they were denied visas. The reason given for the denial reportedly was that they were attempting to enter the country as individual performers rather than as part of a company. With an eye toward restraining both my temper and my choice of words because this is a family review, aside from being idiotic, inconsistent and artistically dangerous, it’s ironic.  During the Cold War, the Soviet Union attempted to prevent its artists from leaving the country for the U.S.; now, it’s the U.S. that’s preventing Russian artists from entering. There are many more observations and arguments to make, but I won’t make them here.

Even with this virtually last-minute development, the evening proceeded smoothly. Replacements were arranged to cover the absence of Smirnova and Tissi, and the show went on.

Following an introductory film and a rendition of Chopin’s Etude No. 8, Op. 10 by Rosalia Vlaeva Malik on piano, the Stars of Tomorrow portion of the program, in which eleven selected YAGP competition finalists participated, began with Rebecca Alexandria Hadibroto from Indonesia performing a variation from Fairy Doll. Ms. Hadibroto is 11 years old, remarkably poised, and even more remarkably proficient – not to mention precocious. She danced flawlessly, with technique (including admirable phrasing) and stage demeanor that would be the envy of professionals twice her age.

Fourteen year old Antonio Casalinho, from Portugal, who was awarded the Junior Youth America Grand Prix the next day, followed with a blistering execution of a variation from Le Corsaire, a different variation from his Final Round performance. Seventeen year old Carolyne Freitas Galvao from Brazil  then delivered a knockout Brazilian Samba dance (also different from the classical variation she had performed in the Final Round) that fused Samba and ballet and youthful coquettishness beautifully.

Pieces from YAGP’s ensemble category, which are not presented in the public Final Round, are always exceptionally entertaining and some are inventive and audacious. This year’s examples were no exception (and only whet the appetite for more). En Pro Del Talento Veracruzano – approximately 10 young male dancers from Mexico (the specific dancers weren’t identified, and I’m approximating the total number) performed an unusual ensemble piece titled Bohemian Rhapsody (to excerpts from Queen’s song). I’m not sure where they were going with it, but I enjoyed its dark visual interest and variety, and the young dancers’ execution.

After Jolie Rose Lombardo (14, USA), who seems to have grown a few feet in the past couple of years, danced an exquisite variation from Coppelia (again, a different classical variation from the one she performed at the Final Round), and Enrique Emmanuel Vidal, also 14, from Mexico, danced a variation from Diana & Acteon (also different from the classical variation he performed the previous night), Elisabeth Beyer (15, USA) repeated her dynamite variation from La Esmeralda.

Unidentified dancers from Israel’s Unison Dance School then performed a duet titled Max, by Ohad Naharin.  Naharin’s expressive choreography can be both powerful and complex – as well as different – and Max, seemingly a battle for supremacy amid unexplained pressures between the two young women, is a good example of it.  [It’s possible that the dance represents an effort at conflict resolution by two Israeli girls, one of whom is Palestinian, but the program does not reference that in any way.] The two dancers did a fine job with it.

Yuma Matsuura (15, Japan) then repeated his Don Quixote variation from the Final Round.  And Guo Wen Jin followed with an elegantly serene performance of the contemporary solo, Yan.

What followed was a most unusual, and exceptional, ensemble piece by dancers from Portugal’s Annarella Academia De Ballet e Danca. One might not expect to see folk dances from the Caucasus Mountain performed by Portuguese dancers, but this piece, titled Dance of the Caucasus Mountains, was both magical and exciting. Roughly 14 young women floated radiantly across and around the stage, and were subsequently joined by 6 young men, most of whom performed individual folk-dance solos that would be the envy of the Moiseyev. It was a wonderfully colorful and dynamic presentation, beautifully executed by all.

The Stars of Tomorrow portion of the gala concluded with a delightful performance of the Pas de Deux from Talisman by Korean dancers Seonmee Park (18) and Sangmin Lee (19), each of whom had also performed solo variations in the Final Round, and each of whom won individual medals.

The Stars of Today portion of the evening included the usual YAGP variety of the contemporary and the classical, the audacious and the familiar, and featured generally quality execution throughout.

Replacing Smirnova and Tissi, Whitney Jensen and Garrett Smith, from the Norwegian Ballet, presented an excerpt from Smith’s Imitations. The piece as presented looked … strange, with Jensen in black looking sinewy and sleek and thoroughly in command, and Smith, wearing a modified black tutu, moved like he was, maybe, trying to imitate a ballerina. A former YAGP participant, Jensen danced beautifully; Smith, a former winner of YAGP’s Outstanding Choreographer’s award in 2016, didn’t. Neither fish nor fowl nor Troc, he looked silly in an unintentionally silly way – but I suspect that the dance is supposed to come across exactly like that. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure what the point of this was (except to be a fine vehicle for showing off Jensen), but since this was only an excerpt from the larger piece, I’ll assume that seeing the entire dance might leave a better impression.

Also replacing Smirnova and Tissi later in the program was New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck – apparently a superb choice: the crowd erupted when her name was announced. Her rendition of the “Fascinating Rhythm” solo from George Balanchine’s Who Cares brought the house down – as she always does.

YAGP’s Galas always manage to include something unusual. In addition to the unscheduled excerpt from Imitations, this year that role was filled by classically (Bolshoi) trained Liubov Kazantseva, in a piece choreographed by Natalia Bashkatova titled Desert Rose. People may say that it has little to do with ballet, and they’d be right – it’s more circus, or an act one might see on America’s Got Talent. Or Russia’s Got Talent. But I found it beautiful – and extraordinarily anxiety provoking.

Kazantseva enters the stage clad in a bone-colored unitard. While musical accompanists play (extraordinary Sarah Charness on an Electric Violin, the neck of which appears to wrap around hers, and Caleb Spaulding on Djembe), Kazantseva approaches bright red silks that drop from the stage rafters – and climbs without human or mechanical assistance. She then proceeds to dance a beautiful solo (or, seen another way, a pas de deux with the silks), all while my heart was in my throat (the DHK stage floor gives, but not enough to protect one from a 50 foot drop). It may not have been “real” ballet, but it was certainly thrilling.

The most successful dances of the evening, at least to my eye, were danced by men. Fresh from its prize-winning appearance at Russia’s Dance Open ballet festival, Tres Hombres, a triptych of sorts choreographed and danced by NYCB’s Daniel Ulbricht, ballroom dance champion Denys Drozdyuk, and free-form dancer Lex Ishimoto, the winner of Season 14’s So You Think You Can Dance. To the Tango rhythms of Astor Piazzolla, the three danced together at the beginning and end, and in between danced solos that matched their specialty. Ishimoto seemed somewhat unkempt, but that may be his style, and Drozdyuk provided superbly executed ballroom snippets that might have been found on Dancing With the Stars. But Ulbricht executed as he usually does – magnificently. I once described him as a cross between a soaring eagle and a bowling ball thrown for a strike, and he demonstrated both aspects of his dancing character in this piece. It was great fun.

Even greater fun, to me, was Daniil Simkin’s performance of Les Bourgeois, choreographed by Ben Van Cauwenbergh to an unidentified song (presumably of the same name) by French balladeer Jacques Brel. Simkin was low-key when he needed to be, and explosive when it was appropriate. Overall, it was more measured, and more entertaining, than the little dance had any right to be. [And it made me wonder if anyone has considered choreographing a piece to the songs in the late 1960s Off-Broadway hit, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.]

The Gala included two pas de deux, both well-performed, and one of more than passing interest.

Irek Mukhamedov was a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet for nine years beginning in 1981, and, after leaving the Soviet Union, with the Royal Ballet. His performances were galvanizing, and in 1985 he was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen award as Best Dancer in the World, which was followed by other similar awards.

Mukhamedov’s daughter, Alexandra (Sasha) is now a Principal with the Dutch National Ballet, and her New York professional debut was of more than passing interest because of the memories it kindled of her father. But, accompanied by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal first soloist Constantine Allen in his New York professional debut, that relationship quickly disappeared, and she assumed her own identity. Although it’s been seen in New York several times (most recently last November with the Dresden Semperoper Ballett), David Dawson’s On the Nature of Daylight, to music by Max Richter, is a gentle romantic duet that’s always welcome. Mukhamedov and Allen provided the matching gentle romantic (and youthful) atmosphere.

The other pas de deux, the “Final” pas de deux from Yuri Possokhov’s Bells, was lovingly performed by Joffrey Ballet dancers Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, each making their New York professional debuts. This too was a finely executed performance, with Mendoza and Gutierrez handling Possokhov’s intricate partnering and occasional slinky movement well. However, sweet as it is, the pas de deux loses something out of context (it was presented in its complete form by the Joffrey when the company appeared in New York last year).

The Pas de Deux from the final Act of Don Quixote completed this portion of the program.  Isabella Boylston, an ABT principal, and Kimin Kim, a Bolshoi principal (who is scheduled to appear with ABT this coming Met season), danced their roles with flair and flourish, and left the audience cheering. Kim, whom I’d not previously seen live, delivered the partnering and the solo pyrotechnics that the role requires, and Boylston, perhaps ABT’s most powerful ballerina, owned the stage – a trademark of hers since I first noticed her soon after she joined the company. But power has its limits (and coming so soon after the scintillating performance in the same role by Tamara Rojo at last year’s YAGP Gala honoring Julio Bocca, it suffered by comparison). Her fouettes were cleanly done, but they were all singles, and she traveled a significant distance – but at least she did them. More problematic were her pas de cheval – she doesn’t have the delicacy to make her feet look like they’re barely touching the ground. It might be advisable to consider the frequently-used alternative sequence in future performances.

After a brief musical hiatus to prepare the stage (Weixiong Wang on clarinet, delivering an exceptional performance of excerpts from Niccolo Paganini’s Caprice no. 24), a stage full of YAGP Finalists delivered the extraordinary Grand Defile, choreographed this year by Alexei Moskalenko, Carlos Dos Santos, and Mikhail Tchoupakov. Getting all these young dancers on stage at appropriate intervals and assembling them together at the dance’s end without either the stage or the dancers themselves collapsing seems a Herculean task, but, like the Gala itself, YAGP pulled it off.

I’d report on the post-performance Gala Reception and Dinner, but my invitation must have gotten lost in the mail. Maybe next year.