Youth America Grand Prix, 2019
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
April 18, 2019: Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow
April 20, 2019: International Dance School Festival
After the 2019 Youth America Grand Prix competition ended (the subject of a prior review), the celebrations began. This year, to commemorate YAGP’s 20th Anniversary, a second performance of its annual Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow gala (“SOTMSOT”) was added to the event schedule, as was and an International Dance School Festival (“IDSF”), a new gala program this year.
Although both galas had their pluses and minuses, the disappointments were minimal. They were among the finest such programs that YAGP has presented since I began attending them, featuring interesting new choreography and an abundance of superlative performances. And hopefully the IDSF will become an annual fixture. It’s a fine idea.
I’ll address the programs in rough performance order (and make brief observations where appropriate), but the highlights among highlights merit special praise. In the SOTMSOT, I was particularly impressed (for different reasons) by Melanie Hamrick’s Porte Rouge, Julio Nunes’s Nothing Left, Catherine Hurlin dancing a paso doble, and Olga Smirnova and Calvin Royal III in Dying Swan (yes, you read that right); and in the IDSF by the performances of YAGP alumni Mackenzie Brown and Jun Masuda of Monaco’s Princess Grace Academy, Lilly Maskery of the Australian Ballet School, and Yuki Wakabayashi from Germany’s John Cranko School.
Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow
I saw the first of the two SOTMSOT galas, which proceeded without intermission. One could sense, if not smell, the preparations for the Gala Dinner on the DHK Promenade that immediately followed the program.
Interspersed with the performances were video clips of several individual YAGP competitors discussing their feelings about being a part of the YAGP competition, the challenges they faced, and what they liked about dance. It was a very effective presentation. The snippets did not identify the individual speakers, which is unfortunate but understandable to protect their privacy and to make them appear as generalizations of an “everyYAGPdancer.” Also, mid-way through the Stars of Today program, actress Cicely Tyson, escorted by American Ballet Theatre’s Calvin Royal III and YAGP Board Member B Michael, addressed the recent passing, and the significance, of New York City Ballet Principal and Dance Theatre of Harlem Founder Arthur Mitchell, including acknowledging with gratitude and graciousness the encouragement and blessing he received from George Balanchine. Royal subsequently announced that his performances that evening were dedicated to Mitchell.
The program opened with the annual Grand Defilé, choreographed again by Carlos Dos Santos, Jr. (assisted by Alexei Moskalenko and Mikhail Tchoupakov), which this year was moved to the beginning of the program. To me it’s a grand celebratory tribute to the young dancers and the YAGP organization, and belongs where it was last year, as the evening’s conclusion. Regardless, somehow the piecemeal process comes together when it has to, and the sight of a stage overflowing with young dance talent is always eye-opening and exciting to watch. It was performed magnificently by all the New York Finals participants.
The young dancers selected to perform in SOTMSOT usually, though not always, are drawn from those known to have won awards or placed highly in final rankings. As formally announced the following day, Thursday’s “Stars of Tomorrow” portion of the program exclusively included those who had won awards, beginning with the youngest dancers. Precocious Martha Savin, 11, from Romania, who placed first in the “Pre-Competition Womens Division,” performed her Casta Diva solo with the attitude, and much of the finesse, of a seasoned dancer. Corbin Holloway, also 11, followed with his solo from Le Corsaire. The Hope Award winner (the pre-competition equivalent of the Grand Prix) from the USA left the audience cheering with his already manifest technique and stage presence. Thirteen year old Madison Brown, also from the USA, then danced a beautifully executed contemporary solo: Revolt. She won third place in the Junior Womens Division.
Rebecca Alexandria Hadibroto, a 12 year old from Indonesia and first place winner in the Junior Womens Division, followed with a repeat performance of the solo from Harlequinade that blew the audience away the previous night. Gabriel Figueredo, 18, from Germany (who actually is Brazilian) then concluded the “Stars of Tomorrow” performances with a contemporary solo from Wayne MacGregor’s Chroma. Figueredo won the most prestigious award in the competition, the Youth America Grand Prix, as well as the Dance Europe Award. It’s been a monumental year for Figueredo, who also was one of the winners of the Prix de Lausanne a few months earlier.
Without interruption, the program then segued into the Stars of Today portion of the program.
Melanie Hamrick may have choreographed previously, but if she did, I’m not aware of it. Be that as it may, the long-time member of American Ballet Theatre’s corps choreographed a highly enjoyable piece, Porte Rouge (“Red Door”), which began the Stars of Today program auspiciously. The choreography isn’t the most complex, but that’s not the dance’s point. Exuberance that’s as contagious as the music is. This was the piece’s North American premiere, following its world premiere (with a slightly different cast) on a Creative Workshop of Young Choreographers program at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg last month.
To three songs by the Rolling Stones orchestrated by Mick Jagger, Hamrick (with Assistant Choreographer Joanna DeFelice and with input from Jagger, who reportedly was backstage during this performance) has created a dance that celebrates Jagger’s music, but does so with an appropriate abundance of energy rather than reverence. The first song, Sympathy for the Devil, was a multi-faceted dance in which ABT soloist Skylar Brandt was partnered by a changing male retinue (ABT Principal Herman Cornejo, New York City Ballet Principal Daniel Ulbricht, ABT soloists Thomas Forster and Royal, and corps member Sung Woo Han). As able as these dancers were, this segment was overshadowed by the next two. Christine Shevchenko, another ABT Principal, and Forster followed with a superb duet choreographed to She’s a Rainbow, amplified by the color-splashed costumes and lights that bathed the upstage scrim in a rainbow of colors (costumes and lighting were not credited). This segued seamlessly to the final dance of the three, to Paint it Black, inhabited by Cornejo, Ulbricht, Forster and Royal. My only criticism: it ended too abruptly (though that’s the song), and too soon. There’s a more comprehensive, but still coherent, ballet of Stones music out there. If Hamrick is looking to create more than a pièce d’occasion, she should catch her dreams before they slip away.
Following a lively performance of George Balanchine’s Tarantella by New York City Ballet’’s Indiana Woodward and Taylor Stanley, the evening’s biggest surprise was the world premiere of a duet choreographed by Juliano Nunes (who dances with the Royal Ballet of Flanders). Nothing Left is a male relationship piece, performed by Nunes and Boston Ballet’s Derek Dunn (to music by Karen LeFrak), which relates the passion, and the hopelessness, of a male relationship. I’m not a fan of male duets per se, but I am of fine choreography and execution, and Nothing Left is definitely that. There are moments when the dance almost, but not quite, takes the sexual component too far, but mostly I found it exhilarating, touching and tragic. I was not previously aware of Nunes’s choreography, but if Nothing Left is a representative example, his ability to merge finely wrought choreography with equally expressive (but not intrusive) emotion is revelatory.
Olga Smirnova is a Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina, and an international star. She was the centerpiece of this Gala. Her rendition of the Black Swan Pas de Deux, however, was disappointing. I saw Smirnova at the 2014 YAGP SOTMSOT Gala, and found her performance in Balanchine’s “Diamonds” (from Jewels) to be overly stoic, and a subsequent performance as Nikiya as an ABT guest artist the same. Although this performance began with a bit of character, it devolved again into an exhibition of undeniable technique, while her demeanor became more and more stone-faced. That she replaced the anticipated fouettes in the coda with a series of pique turns, although brilliantly executed, didn’t help the impression. I may be in the minority (and based on audience response, I am), but I expect quality animation as well as execution in a Black Swan.
Her Prince, Kimin Kim, was another matter. Character isn’t an issue here (she’s the seducer), and Kim’s technique never ceases to amaze. The Bolshoi principal (and occasional ABT guest artist) gets more air in a jump or leap than any danseur I’ve ever seen. He’s truly a force of nature.
The next three pieces on the program more than compensated for the perceived Black Swan Pas de Deux deficiency.
Catherine Hurlin, a recently-promoted ABT soloist, is a multi-faceted dancer who can be a comedian one minute and a siren the next. Her growth as a dancer, even though predictable following her pre-professional debut as Young Clara in ABT’s world premiere of Alexei Ratmanksy’s Nutcracker, continues to astound. Outfitted here in a flaming red dress that complemented her red hair and fiery execution, she and Denys Drozdyuk, described as a World Ballroom Champion, danced a vibrant Paso Doble (choreographed by Donnie Burns and Gaynor Fairweather, with additional choreography by Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina and with music by Pascual Marquino Narro) that was more incendiary than steamy, but which was great fun to watch.
Gerald Arpino’s Light Rain may be an example of early 80s kitsch, but its intricate and breathtakingly sensual partnering makes it an enduring audience favorite, and it was superbly danced by the still rubber-bodied Lucia Lacarra (Victor Ullate Ballet) and commanding Fabrice Calmels (Joffrey Ballet). I’ve seen both dancers in these roles previously, but this performance was particularly thrilling to watch, even with a lighting glitch that marred the ending.
ABT Principal Hee Seo is a stunning dramatic dancer (as she displayed many times in John Cranko’s Onegin), but her passionate sensuality in the Act I pas de deux from Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon revealed another dimension to her acting ability. She and her partner, ABT Principal Cory Stearns, melted into each other in a sneak preview of one of the anticipated highlight ballets of the upcoming ABT Met Season.
More often than not I’ve found William Forsythe’s choreography to be icy and mechanical, but In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated is one of the better (and most well-known) examples of his work, and it was given an fine performance by the Mariinsky Ballet’s Ekaterina Kondaurova and Konstantin Zverev. Kondaurova is one of ballet’s most dominating (and regal) ballerinas, which was evident when she first appeared with the Mariinsky in New York many years ago. In The Middle… doesn’t call for that, but, like another dominating and regal ballerina, Sylvie Guillem, she brought a measure of heat to that ice.
Perhaps the most intriguing performance of the night was in Michel Fokine’s Dying Swan. Choreographed in 1905 as a solo for Anna Pavlova, I’ve not known Dying Swan as anything other than a ballerina (including Trockadero ballerina) solo, although I suppose that, like most anything else, permutations of the original have been done. Regardless, I’ve never before seen Dying Swan danced by both a ballerina and a danseur, as Smirnova and Royal did. I’ve always admired the artistry in fine performances of Dying Swan, but I never really loved it. This performance I loved, primarily because of Royal’s presence in it.
The additional choreography for Royal is not credited in the program, but my understanding is that it is by Nunes. It provides Dying Swan with another dimension – the visualization of some force, some spirit, that appears to direct the Swan’s gradual demise like a benevolent angel of death. Whatever, or whomever, the character is supposed to be, he converts the dance into something spectacular to watch, and the additional choreography is thoroughly consistent with Fokine’s original. [Indeed, with the added male dancer, the piece was remindful of another Fokine ballet, one with a completely contrary temperament, in which a female character responds to a “spirit” that only she can see: Spectre de la Rose.] Smirnova’s one-dimensional characterization was appropriate here and her execution top-flight, but her physical responses to Royal, and Royal’s compassionate portrayal are what brought a swan’s death to life. Pianist Micah McLaurin perfectly delivered the Camille Saint-Saens music.
I’ve seen David Parsons’s Caught many times, but always performed by a male dancer. Zoe Anderson demonstrated that it doesn’t have to be this way. It appeared that most of the audience had not previously seen this Parsons classic, evidenced by their awe-struck audible responses as Anderson’s image became frozen mid-motion by flashes of strobe lighting.
The Don Quixote Suite that concluded SOTMSOT was mildly disappointing – not because of Shevchenko, who lit up the stage with Kitri’s solo from Act I, or by Brandt’s Amour and the brief appearances of ABT soloist Katherine Williams and Finnish National Ballet’s Rebecca King, and certainly not with Kim’s soaring exuberance, but with Isabella Boylston’s portrayal of Kitri in the pas de deux. Unlike the Black Swan Pas de Deux, the absence of characterization isn’t fatal here since even in context this dance is celebratory more than plot-driven, and Boylston’s power-packed technical prowess was abundantly clear. But at this stage in her career, and after having danced this role many times around the world, I expected at least a flash of character (demonstrated two days later, as I’ll mention below). I acknowledge again, however, that I’m probably in a minority – and certainly was on Thursday, as the audience roared its approval at the pas de deux’s conclusion.
International Dance School Festival
If you enjoy being educated about the future of ballet, being introduced to young dancers you’ve never seen, and being entertained in the process, nothing tops the panoply of performances in YAGP’s first IDSF. I didn’t appreciate all the dances, but these young dancers all delivered noteworthy performances. With one exception, my focus will be on the dancers rather than the choreography.
Some of the large ensemble dances, though fun to watch, left a blur of an impression. Since identifying individual dancers who participated in these pieces is not possible (except by bulk listing), I’ll mention these dances in passing.
The most prominent of the noteworthy IDSF performances was by Mackenzie Brown. The Virginia native won a scholarship to Monaco’s Princess Grace Academy following the 2016 YAGP Finals, and then won this year’s Prix de Lausanne, finishing first among eight award-winners. Her performances here lived up to the hype that winning a competition can bring.
Following an opening piece, Dance(s)pace, performed with considerable polish by ten student dancers from the University of North Carolina School of Dance, Brown, together with her Princess Grace Academy partner Jun Masuda, also a YAGP alumnus, appeared in the first of their two dances. Choreographed by Jean Christophe Maillol, the Artistic Director of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo (with which the Princess Grace Academy is affiliated), Dove la Luna exemplifies Maillol’s contemporary ballet style as well as his realistically natural manner of visualizing youthful love. In a way, Dove la Luna (choreographed to music by Alexander Scriabin) looks like an outtake from his Romeo and Juliet, but without any plot beyond youthful infatuation and exploration. Brown and Masuda handled their assignments flawlessly, with the soon-to-be seventeen year old Brown looking both innocent and excitedly compliant in the process.
Later in the evening, both dancers reappeared in the Black Swan Pas de Deux. I sat back in my chair waiting to see Brown in a classical performance, which will teach me to read beyond the title of the piece being presented. This Black Swan was choreographed by Marco Goecke, and is in no way a classical ballet, Petipa or otherwise.
Goecke’s choreography is instantly recognizable, and although I understand his movement quality and occasionally appreciate his work, I find his rapid-fire and emotionless angular body movement, emphasizing thrusting and jerking arms, particularly annoying. To me, the movement comes across as insect-like (definitely not a snug-in-a-rug bug), with the dancers’ arms being the equivalent of antennae and / or insect legs. This may be Goecke’s intent, though I can’t understand any reason for it beyond being distinctive.
Curiously, my first exposure to Goecke’s work was in a 2014 YAGP gala solo piece, On Velvet, performed by Evan McKie, in which McKie moved his arms at warp speed while standing still or sprawled on the stage floor. I found it to be of little interest or significance.
I still find Goecke’s choreography of little interest beyond execution dynamics, but it’s certainly proven significant, at least in Europe, where he apparently enjoys a sterling reputation. But I can at times accept that there’s considerable intelligence behind it (evidence by the recent performance of Wir sagen uns Dunkles by NDT2 at the Joyce earlier this year). Goecke’s Black Swan Pas de Deux displays a similar intelligence. That’s not enough to make it enjoyable, but, together with Brown and Masuda’s execution, it’s enough to make it interesting.
There is nothing in Goecke’s Black Swan Pas de Deux that’s in any way balletic, nor is it a credible reimagining of Tchaikovsky’s score. On the contrary, it comes across as an ugly, anti-Black Swan, in which arms move angularly at lightning speed, accented by twitches that appear senseless and delivered by stone-faced dancers.
But … every once in awhile I discerned a method to this madness, and a non-emotive relationship to the depicted relationship, and to the original. It takes awhile to get there, but there’s an attraction and response here (albeit all expressed by arm movement and a little body posture). When it’s discernable, it cuts like a knife. Most significantly, there’s a touch of comedy when the female character (an arthropod “Odile”) responds to the male dancer (her probing “Prince”) with a stoic slap that stops his hands from taking things too far, presumably before he swears his love to her. In context, it was a remarkable moment, which Brown delivered with steely but stoic resolve, and it sent shivers up and down my spine the way Dolores’s slapping of an annoying fly did at the conclusion of the initial episode of HBO’s Westworld. Somewhere in there, Brown’s character is alive and human.
So if you enjoy seeing a fabulous portrayal of mutual wasp seduction or the mating ritual of beetles, see Goecke’s Black Swan Pas de Deux – and if possible, with Brown and Masuda, who performed his choreography as well, if not better, than I’ve seen by experienced professionals.
Following what appeared to be an excerpt from Stanton Welch’s Clear by four dancers from ABT’s Studio Company (Melvin Lawovi, Duncan Mcilwaine, Andrew Robere, and Grace Anne Pierce), who executed well but understandably lacked the polish of the senior company dancers when ABT last performed it in 2013, Boston Ballet II’s Tyson Clark and My’kal Stromile danced August Bournonville’s rarely seen Jockey Dance as well as I’ve seen it previously.
The Suitor, a pas de deux choreographed by The Australia Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Stephen Baynes to an unidentified Mozart composition, is a lovely ballet pas de deux, delivered masterfully by Australian Ballet School’s Lilly Maskery and Jett Ramsay. There’s nothing choreographically unusual here – what makes the piece is the compelling sincerity of the two dancers. Maskery has a particularly special stage presence, a combination of strength and vulnerability rarely evident in a ballerina this young.
Following the English National Ballet School’s exuberant 14-dancer performance of an excerpt from Carlos Valcarcel’s Overture from Die Zauberharfe (to the Schubert composition), Alderya Avci and Niklas Jendriks, representing Germany’s Palucca University in Dresden, danced a contemporary pas de deux from David Dawson’s, A Sweet Spell of Oblivion. Both dancers executed Dawson’s choreography, to music from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, with flawless intensity, and Avci’s liquid movement quality was noteworthy. But out of context the pas de deux of a pair of dancers searching for, or responding to, … something appeared meaningless.
The first half of the program ended with an ensemble dance, and the second half began with one. Eleven highly capable young dancers from Berlin State Ballet School executed Goecke’s All Long Dem Day to music sung by Nina Simone, and, after intermission, twenty engaging students (some whose names I recognized from the competition) from the Rock School for Dance Education opened the second half of the program with what appeared to be an excerpt from Justin Allen’s Influx (it ended quite abruptly). After Goecke’s Black Swan Pas de Deux, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s Anastasiya Plotnikova danced a crisply delivered variation from Yuri Grigorovich’s choreography for Act III of Sleeping Beauty. Both here and during the YAGP Final Round, Plotnikova impressed as a tall, sweet-looking, and highly capable budding ballerina, albeit a bit regimented in her execution.
The evening included two more ensemble pieces: excerpts from Welch’s Fingerprints, performed by eight dancers from the Houston Ballet Academy, and quicksilver, choreographed by AXIS Dance Company Artistic Director Marc Brew and performed by six dancers from the San Francisco Ballet School. Although Fingerprints has more complex and exciting choreography (and in context the flowing floor-length skirts worn by the men as well as the women will have more evident purpose), perhaps because it was not an excerpt quicksilver appeared more coherent. Both sets of dancers did excellent work.
Three students from Germany’s John Cranko School next performed excerpts from Uwe Scholz’s Die Schopfung (“Creation”). Figueredo, already a commanding danseur, first performed a solo, and Yuki Wakabayashi and Alexander Smith followed with a duet. It’s unfortunate that the program did not indicate the represented characters in each excerpt. Be that as it may, all three dancers executed magnificently, with Wakabayashi and Smith, in what may have been Scholz’s visualization of Adam and Eve, particularly breathtaking.
The evening concluded with ABT Studio Company dancers and YAGP alumni Chloe Misseldine and Joseph Markey dancing the concluding Pas de Deux from Don Quixote. Both dancers did fine work, with Misseldine, a tall, imposing stage presence, adding a measure of character and vivacity to the role (the “character” appeared more Odile than Kitri, but any character was better than none, and it worked). But for an apparent loss of concentration when Misseldine’s fully-completed fouettes concluded, it was a noteworthy performance from both.
Highly capable young dancers populate dance schools all over the world, and will soon make their way into professional companies beyond those few with international name recognition, and regardless of what one thinks of particular contemporary choreographic trends, the entire art form reaps the benefits. YAGP’s International Dance School Festival provided ample evidence of this, and similar programs in the future would be a rewarding development for all involved. I’ll look forward to it.