[Apologies for the lengthy delay posting this. Sometimes life gets in the way. And for its length; it grew.]

Youth America Grand Prix, 2024
David H. Koch Theater
Lincoln Center
New York, New York

April 17, 2024
Finals Competition

April 18 and 19, 2024
25th Anniversary Gala; Stars of Today Meet Stars of Tomorrow Gala

The Elephant in the Room – Commentary

Jerry Hochman

The capstone of Youth America Grand Prix’s 25th Anniversary Celebration, featuring its return to NYC for its Finals Competition (affectionately known as the Final Finals) and two celebratory Galas at the Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, was a great success.

But one aspect of it was also a great disappointment: the decision, albeit a difficult one, to cancel the performances by three members of the Mariinsky Ballet in the Gala programs. For many of those who attended the Galas, this was the elephant in the room that marred what otherwise were two excellent programs.

I’ll address that matter at the conclusion of this review, because I don’t want the details as I know them or the cancellation decision or my personal opinions to weaken the discussion of the performances that did take place. Accordingly, I’ll report initially on the programs that I attended – the August 17 Finals, the August 18 25th Anniversary Celebration Gala, and the August 19 Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala – and, where appropriate, review them. The elephant will be discussed thereafter.

YAGP 2024 “Grand Defile,”
choreographed by Carlos dos Santos, Jr.
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

For those still unfamiliar with it, YAGP is the largest global network of dance. Since its founding in 1999 by Larissa Savaliev (who emigrated to the U.S. after having trained at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy), YAGP’s mission has been to educate and provide contact opportunities for young dancers – ages 9 to 19 – of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, to connect with prestigious ballet schools worldwide through instruction, scholarship auditions, master classes, alumni services, and performances.

When I first started to attend YAGP programs roughly 12 or so years ago, I initially believed it to be just another competition in which judges made decisions based on some hocus-pocus that was not comprehensible to an average ballet audience-goer, and in which athletic proficiency would likely outweigh artistic style. I’ve since changed that impression – not just because of the caliber of the young dancers or the exposure and scholarships that the competition emphasizes, but also because of the manifest camaraderie and contacts made during the competitions, which I observed and which YAGP facilitates, that could last a lifetime.

One of my early reviews is instructive as to YAGP’s growth and scope. The second or third year that I started to attend YAGP performances was in 2014, which happened to coincide with YAGP’s Fifteenth Anniversary celebration. I noted that during that year YAGP had grown to 7,000 contestants who auditioned (competed) at venues spanning six continents.

In the ten years since, the number of participating young dancers reportedly has grown to 15,000, with competitions in 15 countries and 30 cities throughout the U.S.

Over its lifetime to date, YAGP has been host to some 250,000 young dancers, and 450 of them are currently dancing with major companies world-wide. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, but at a minimum YAGP provides an opportunity for young dancers not already affiliated with a major school to be noticed. Although I’ve not taken a census, participating in a YAGP program seems now to be a requisite rite of passage for young dance students. It’s come a long way from being, as I initially reported, a parade of bunheads through Manhattan.

Some 500 dancers, the most highly-ranked from the prior regional competitions, arrived in New York to participate in the New York Final Finals..

The April 17th Final Finals:

The dancers participating in the Final Finals for Junior and Senior Men and Junior and Senior Women (respectively 12-14, and 14 – 19) in the Classical category, which I attended on April 17, had already been narrowed from the original collection of regional finalists, and further honed by limiting this final round of the competition to 41 competitors in the Junior Women Category, 22 Junior Men, 34 Senior Women, and 32 Senior Men.

Geonhee Park (18) in a variation
from Victor Gsovsky’s “Grand Pas Classique”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

As I’ve done since I first started covering the competitions, I used my own set of parameters to rate those I saw perform, just to see what a comparison of my evaluation and the judges’ decisions would reveal. Over the years I’ve found that what I see more often than not matches the judges’ decisions. So much for hocus-pocus.

After lengthy and painful deliberation, I’ve decided not to include my specific evaluations of the young dancers I ranked highly in their age categories – both because each dancer in each category is top-flight by definition or they wouldn’t be there and, consequently, any artistic differences between them are minimal, and because providing mini-evaluations of all those I ranked most highly is, essentially, meaningless. Describing their “auditions” would amount to little more than an amplified list. I’ve also been made aware of the availability online (via YouTube) of some or all of these performances, so one can make one’s own evaluations.

Ivana Radan (15) in a variation from “La Esmeralda”
Photo Courtesy of YAGP

I may, from time to time, add my personal observations when I discuss those young dancers who performed in the two Galas.

A complete list of Final six (or twelve) finalists in all categories, and the medaling young dancers (the top three unless there’s a tie), as well as the Special Award winners, is available on YAGP’s web site. The winners of the awards considered most prestigious follow below, but all the overall finalists, the final 12 in each category, and the medal winners in all categories, merit congratulations. And scholarships and school offers, which YAGP considers more important than medaling, may be awarded regardless of final numerical rank.

  • GeonHee Park (18), from the Korea National University of Arts, South Korea, won the Grand Prix, the competition’s highest award.
  • Ivana Radan (15), from the Ellison Ballet – Professional Training Program, NY, USA, won the Gold Medal in the Senior Women’s division.
  • Martinho Lima Santos (18), from Princess Grace Academy Monaco /Brazil, won the Gold Medal in the Senior Men’s division (in which there was a tie for second place)
  • Tamison Soppet (13), from Convergence Dance Studios, New Zealand, won the Junior Women’s Gold Medal
  • Keenan Mentzos (14), from Ballet Bloch, Canada, won the Junior Men’s Gold Medal
  • Owen Simmons (11), from the School of Cadence Ballet, Canada, was the winner of the Hope Award (the top award in the Pre-Competitive Age Division).
  • Viktoria Papakalodouka (15) was awarded the Makarova Award for Artistry (she was also one of the top twelve finalists in the Senior Women Division).
  • Chloe Helimets (13) was awarded the Shelley King Award for Excellence (she was also one of the top twelve finalists in the Junior Women Division).

    Tamison Soppet (13) in a variation from “Fairy Doll”
    Photo Courtesy of YAGP

The Two Galas: the April 18th 25th Anniversary Gala and the April 19th Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala.

I’m lumping the two Galas together both to save some space, and because they were structurally similar.

As the Galas always do, each opened with the Grand Defile. Choreographed by Carlos dos Santos, Jr. and requiring three rehearsal directors, the presentation, consisting of all the New York Final Finalists may be essentially the same every year, but each year it’s a priceless memory for the young dancers and their relatives and friends, as well as for unaffiliated audience members. I must admit that I was moved noticeably (ok, I shed a tear; I’m easy) by the sight of so many young dancers (500, give or take) performing mostly age-delineated segments, each segment being neatly choreographed and synchronized with the others, and occupying every inch of the Koch Theater stage.

YAGP 2024 “Grand Defile”
choreographed by Carlos dos Santos, Jr.
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

As far as I could see, the Grand Defile proceeded flawlessly each night. What an experience this must have been for these kids! As comedian Richard Kind said at the end of his introductory remarks for each Gala program: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the future of ballet!” as the curtain opened to a stage filled to overflowing with a mass of young talent and white tutus.

Following the Grand Defile, each program was peppered with video compilations recognizing, congratulating, or highlighting their speaker’s experiences with YAGP. These videos were on a far higher level of professionalism than I’d seen at past YAGP Galas.

Each Gala was comprised of highly regarded finalists (medals winners had not yet been officially determined) interspersed with recognized stars – most of whom were YAGP alumni, with several making their New York professional debuts. The young dancers’ variations were either classical or contemporary, and included representatives from the “pre-competitive” division as well as from several of the competition’s other divisions and categories. The established “stars” pieces generally avoided the warhorse excerpts usually seen – except for the concluding “suites” each night.

Melissa Hamilton and Vsevolod Maievskyi in Joshua Beamish's "Hungarian Dances" Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Melissa Hamilton and Vsevolod Maievskyi
in Joshua Beamish’s “Hungarian Dances”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

I’ll proceed from here in somewhat jumbled Gala program order. That is, I’ll first address each evening’s world premiere dances, followed by each evening’s opening dance and then young dancer performances, and concluding with the performances each evening by the “stars of today.” And as the reader may already have noticed, I’ll pepper the narrative with as many pertinent photographs as will fit.

The World Premieres

To the extent any of the pieces were more significant than others, it was with the world premiere dances. There were two on Thursday’s program: More Than Nothing, choreographed by American Ballet Theatre Principal James Whiteside and performed by ABT Principals Isabella Boylston, Catherine Hurlin, and Soloist Jake Roxander (it also featured accompaniment on piano by Matthew Whitaker, who arranged the score — “Mas Que Nada,” by Jorge Ben); and Dea, choreographed by Maria Konrad to a score by Karen LeFrak, and featuring Adji Cissoko from Alonzo King LINES Ballet and Vsevolod Maievskyi from English National Ballet.

Each was something of a pièce d’occasion.

(l-r) Isabella Boylston, Jake Roxander, and Catherine Hurlin
in James Whiteside’s “More Than Nothing”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

I’ve seen several of Whiteside’s choreographed dances, and there’s a lot of potential there. And any dance that features the cast that this one did will inevitably be performed superbly, as this one was. More Than Nothing is a jazzy, festive dance that was a perfect complement to the evening as a whole. All the dancers involved, and the choreographer, are YAGP alumni.

Adji Cissoko and Vselolod Maievskyi (hidden)
in Maria Konrad’s “Dea”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

More interesting was the evening’s second world premiere. I was first introduced to Cissoko during Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s most recent Joyce Theater season. She’s an interesting dancer – mysterious in a way – and I highly recommended seeing her the next time she visited New York. This was that next time, and although the piece is a little strange, it fit her like a glove.

Adji Cissoko and Vsevolod Maievskyi in Maria Konrad’s “Dea”
Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

Dea (which I suspect means “goddess” rather than Drug Enforcement Administration) is simple, but complex in that simplicity. Cissoko, center stage somewhat audience right, is begowned in an oversized, billowy red and black costume designed by Penelope Williams. She undulates, gradually moving toward upstage audience right, where her billowy gown billows somewhat more than it had previously, until, voila, Maievskyi (who had embedded himself within the gown) lifts her and eventually reveals himself. In the process the red gown disappears, and Cissoko suddenly appears in a red bikini, being lifted and idolized. That’s basically it. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before (in fact I saw an example of the same thing in another Joyce program recently), but instead of being comic as it was there, here it’s dark and, well, mysterious. Maievskyi, by the way, is a YAGP alumnus; Cissoko isn’t, but her invitation, as is the case with many other YAGP Gala dancers, raised the quality level of the evening.

Cast in Julieta Martinez’s “Sang Mêlé”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Friday evening’s Gala featured two premieres as well: Sang Mêlé, choreographed by Julieta Martínez to music (“Diablo Rojo”) by Rodrigo y Gabriela, and Hungarian Dances, choreographed by Joshua Beamish to music by Johannes Brahms. Each was quite interesting and worthy of further attention beyond the parameters of a Gala.

Translated, Sang Mêlé means “mixed blood” or “half-breed.” [I found another meaning relating to tying knots together, but I don’t think that that applies.] Its appearance is dramatic from the outset: all nine dancers wear black skirts that flow nearly to the floor; the men are shirtless, and the women wear nude-colored tops. The setting is dark and ominous, and describing it on first view is perilous. Suffice it to say that there’s a tribal, clannish sense to it (though that’s not emphasized), and a viewer might consider it somewhat related to dances that select a “chosen one,” but here it has nothing to do with being sacrificed to mollify a god or to make crops grow. The “chosen one” here is isolated and abandoned because he’s different from the others; an aberration of sorts. And to add a sense of visual drama even where nothing more was needed, all those black skirts (or most of them; I didn’t examine each one) are fully-lined on the inside in red – perhaps making a metaphoric statement about keeping colors separate even when mixed by movement.

Cast in Julieta Martinez’s “Sang Mêlé”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

To the best of my recollection, the dancers initially appear in a group spread horizontally across the stage, moving primarily in unison. The movement is not static – it includes a variety of permutations, including lifts, but at some point (repeated in various stage arrangements as I recall), one dancer is gradually isolated and left alone. This dancer, unlike the others, wears scars/ tattoos, including a short red swatch moving upward from his waist, that might have been different from any such adornment on others.

Cast in Julieta Martinez’s “Sang Mêlé”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

I’m not familiar with either the choreographer or the composers, but Sang Mêlé, at least on its surface, is stunning. And the dancers were a superb group … all are students (I assume pre-professional) at highly recognizable schools. They deserve to be acknowledged: Julio Santos from ABT’s JKO School (I suspect he’s the one left abandoned at the end); Kaela Tapper and Leonardo D’Onofrio from the Stuttgart’s John Cranko School; Muu Sakamoto, Juliette Windey, Juliann Fedele Malard, and Martinho Oliveira De Lima E Santos, from the Princess Grace Academy; and Martina Scaglione and Johannes Matthys De Beer from the Zurich Dance Academy. They’re a wonderful group, engaging both because of their youth and their talent. Unfortunately, even if the piece is performed again elsewhere, I doubt that this group could be reconstituted as it was here.

Melissa Hamilton and Vsevolod Maievskyi
in Joshua Beamish’s “Hungarian Dances”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Beamish’s Hungarian Dances is not at all dramatic – but it’s very well-choreographed and executed – one would expect nothing less from Beamish, and from the stellar cast: Melissa Hamilton (The Royal Ballet), Maievskyi, Sterling Baca (Philadelphia Ballet), Benjamin Freemantle (International Principal Artist), and Betsy McBride and Sunmi Park (both ABT Soloists).

(l-r) Sterling Baca, Sunmi Park, Benjamin Freemantle,
and Betsy McBride in Joshua Beamish’s “Hungarian Dances”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

The dance is largely a series of pairings (there are occasions, as I recall, where three or four dance together), and the sparkling, feather-light Hamilton is the glue that holds it all together. Each dancer performed with a smoothly understated aspect. And the kicker in this piece (again, based on a first and only viewing) is that there’s little here that might be seen, choreographically, as Hungarian – until the final image of the final duet, when Hamilton, held aloft by her partner and with a glint in her eye, places one hand behind her head in a Hungarian folk dance manner.  It’s great fun, and hopefully will be presented again in a repertory context.

Melissa Hamilton and Vsevolod Maievskyi
in Joshua Beamish’s “Hungarian Dances”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

The Opening Dance and Young Dancer Performances

On Thursday, the “dancing” part of the program began with Brady Farrar’s performance of Flight of the Bumble Bee (to the familiar Rimsky-Korsakov composition), which Farrar himself choreographed. Now a member of the ABT Studio Company, I remember him vividly when he competed in YAGP. The piece was fun to watch – and if this dancer thing doesn’t work out, Farrar has a future as a choreographer.

Elisabeth Beyer
in the Queen of the Dryads variation from “Don Quixote”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

On Friday, Elisabeth Beyer, a former member of the ABT Studio Company and now a member of ABT’s corps (though I suspect not at that level for very long), opened the dancing portion of the program with a sterling rendition of the Queen of the Dryads solo from Don Quixote – including impeccably executed Italian fouettes. [On Thursday, at the outset of concluding bows (or the conclusion of that evening’s Le Corsaire Suite – they sort of blend together in the mind), Beyer pulled off 32 fouettes, and, following audience applause, did 32 more.] Like Farrar, I remember Beyer very well from her YAGP competition performances.

Each of the programs segued from here to performances by highly-ranked students, many of whom would later medal at Saturday’s announcement of medal/ scholarship winners.

Owen Simmons (11) in Tyler Angell’s “I’m Dreaming”
Photo Courtesy of YAGP

On Thursday, the initial student was 11 year old Owen Simmons, from Canada, performing a contemporary dance, I’m Dreaming, choreographed by Tyler Angell. It’s a sweet piece, and it was very sweetly performed. [As noted above, young Simmons won the Hope Award, the top award in the Pre-Competitive Division.]

Annie Webb (13) in a variation from “Giselle”
Photo Courtesy of YAGP

Next was 13 year old Annie Webb, from Utah, who probably stole a few hearts dancing a variation from Giselle in the Junior Women’s Finals. She performed the same variation here, with equal success, seemingly unaware that she was dancing in front of a sold out house at Lincoln Center. In my description of her Finals performance, I wrote in my notes: “spun sugar.” [Young Miss Webb won second place (Silver Medal) in the Junior Women Division. The Gold Medalist in that Division, Tamison Soppet (also 13) delivered a finely honed, delicately executed variation from Fairy Doll —and appeared to have been twice Webb’s height.]

Martinho Limo Santos, 18, from the Princess Grace Academy, followed with Existential Dread, a complex, interesting, somewhat pessimistic contemporary solo (befitting its title) that he choreographed himself. My description of his performance of a classical variation during the Finals was “commanding.” This young man has a bright future. [He finished in First Place (Gold Medal) in the Senior Men Division.]

Martinho Limo Santos (18) in “Existential Dread”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

Phoenix Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, from Arizona, followed with an ensemble dance described simply as “Ukranian Dance.” [In an earlier incarnation of the program, it was described as “Slavic Sailor Dance.”  I won’t hazard a guess as to why the name was changed.] These young men (I didn’t count their number) performed the assorted cameo dances (choreographed by Pavel Getman), some of which I’d never before seen (though in a similar style to others), brilliantly. My knees hurt just watching them.

The final student dancer was Crystal Huang, 15, performing Valse Masquerade, a contemporary dance choreographed by … Brady Farrar.

In Friday’s program, performances by the student dancers (the “Stars of Tomorrow”) were more integrated with other performances. I’ll condense them together here.

Hana Terada (9) in a variation from “Harlequinade”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Following Beyer’s introduction, the opening student dance was performed by 9 year old Hana Terada, from Japan. Cute, and also remarkably talented (though after all these years, nothing should be remarkable about the caliber of youthful talent at YAGP), she performed a flawless, and fearless, variation from Harlequinade. [Terada was one of the top twelve finalists in the Pre-Competitive Division, Classical category.]

Joao Pedro Silva (15) in a variation from “Harlequinade”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Two performers later, Joao Pedro Silva, a 15-year old from Brazil, danced a different Harlequinade variation. I thought it was not quite up to the level of his performance in the Finals, but it was still highly endearing.[Silva was awarded 2nd Place (Silver Medal) in the Senior Men Division.]

In between, Keenan Mentzos, 14, from Canada, performed Edge, a contemporary dance choreographed by Maria Konrad. Edge is a dark, abstract solo that puts the dancer on the edge, and Mentzos executed it superbly.[Mentzos won First Place (Gold Medal) in the Junior Men Division.]

Keenan Mentzos (14) in Maria Konrad’s “Edge”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Following intermission (the Gala on Thursday had no intermission), the program resumed with a beautifully executed introduction to Act II, but it wasn’t a dance. Tiny Ria Kang, a Juilliard pre-College student, played her violin with the aplomb of a seasoned professional, and in the process knocked her rendition of “Allegro” by Fritz Kreisler (accompanied by Dr. Kyoung Im Kim on piano) out of the park. It was a reminder that precocious talent isn’t limited to young dancers.

Leon Yusei Sai (12) in a variation
from Vasily Vainonen’s “Flames of Paris”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

The first of the post-intermission student performances was by 12 year old Leon Yusei Sai from California, who reprised his competition variation from Flames of Paris with equal success, impressing the audience in the process. He was followed by an even younger dancing prodigy, Jihan Khansa Aisy Permana, a 9 year old from Indonesia, who performed her variation from La Fille Mal Gardee like a particularly engaging pro.

Danceworks, Israel in Ivica Bago’s “Architect”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Next to perform was an ensemble, Danceworks, from Israel, dancing Architect, an ensemble dance choreographed by Ivica Bago to music by Christophe Filippi. The abstract piece focuses on what might be considered architectural formations, which is nothing new, but the piece includes surprising and novel forms (including use of a long silver pipe-sized limbo stick that doubles, or triples, as a climbing pole). It’s an unusual and intriguing dance. [Danceworks/ Architect was one of the top twelve in the Contemporary Ensemble Division.]

Danceworks, Israel in Ivica Bago’s “Architect”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Geonhee Park, an 18 year old from South Korea, followed with a repeat of his impressive variation from Grand Pas Classique. This was followed by a return visit from Crystal Huang (15), this time reprising her excellent Finals performance in the Gulnare variation from Le Corsaire. [Park was awarded the overall Grand Prix, the competition’s highest award; Miss Huang won 2nd Place (Silver Medal) in the Senior Women Division.]

Crystal Huang in Marius Petipa’s “Cavalry Halt”
Photo Courtesy of YAGP

The Stars of Today Performances

Following the two world premieres, Thursday’s professional performances continued with New York City Ballet Principal Isabella LaFreniere dancing a variation from George Balanchine’s Who Cares?, which she delivered with her usual panache. Jon Bond, from Nederlands Dans Theater, followed with a solo excerpt from Alexander Ekman’s Tuplet.

Isabella LaFreniere in an excerpt
from George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

Thereafter, Elisa Badenes and Marti Paixa, both from Stuttgart Ballet, danced an excerpt – the Act III concluding pas de deux – from John Cranko’s Onegin. They did very fine work with this heartbreaking pas de deux, and it brought to mind treasured memories of having seen Marcia Haydee and Richard Cragun dance these roles in New York, back when the Stuttgart made regular visits. [A free plug: if you have an opportunity to see Hee Seo dance the role when ABT returns Onegin to its repertory this summer at the Met, see it.]

Elisa Badenes and Marti Paixa
in the Act III Pas de Deux from John Cranko’s “Onegin”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

Nnamdi Nwagwu, an International Guest Artist, followed with a performance of Tito!, an intense, brief solo that he choreographed, danced to live accompaniment by a four-person band.

Skylar Brandt and Daniel Camargo
in Christian Spuck’s “Le Grand Pas de Deux”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

Relief from the intensity was provided by ABT Principals Skylar Brand and Daniel Camargo, who followed with Christian Spuck’s Le Grand Pas de Deux – which is anything but grand. It’s a comic dance and Brandt mugs her way through it somewhat dimwittedly to Camargo’s even more dimwitted straight man. Although in a number of ways it resembles Jerome Robbins’s The Concert (some sight gags are similar), it’s a different piece that has made its way through multiple companies, including, to my recollection, ABT. I loved it. [The piece was preceded by a priceless film clip of a baby Skylar, talking about having to sacrifice a birthday party invitation for her art.]

YAGP International Contemporary Ensemble
in Shahar Binyamini’s “Bolero X”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

YAGP’s own International Contemporary Ensemble then performed Bolero X, choreographed by Shahar Binyamini, which was a wildly exhilarating take on the Ravel classic.

Chloe Misseldine and Aran Bell
in YAGP’s “Le Corsaire” Suite”
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

The program concluded with a Le Corsaire Suite, which featured highlights from the ballet classic. Here, ABT’s Chloe Misseldine and Aran Bell led the excerpts in the Adagio segment, Paris Opera Ballet’s Bianca Scudamore (who is another I recall from her YAGP performances) danced Gamzatti’s variation (well, the India of La Bayadere isn’t that far away…), Constantine Allen (from the Dutch National Ballet) danced an Act III Conrad variation, and the entire cast (including Beyer and Farrar) gathered together for the rousing Coda. It was an unusual assemblage (and, as I’ll explain below, wasn’t supposed to be that way), but highly entertaining, and a dynamite ending to YAGP’s 25th Anniversary Gala.

(l-r) Brady Farrar, Elisabeth Beyer, Chloe Misseldine,
Aran Bell, Bianca Scudamore, and Constantine Allen
in YAGP’s “Le Corsaire” Suite
Photo by Jennifer Curry Wingrove for LK Studio

Friday’s program included a mostly different set of “stars of today” performances.

Mackenzie Brown and Adhonay Soares da Silva
in Roman Novitsky’s “A Dialog”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Following Sang Mêlé, Stuttgart Ballet’s Mackenzie Brown and Adhonay Soares De Silva performed a contemporary piece choreographed by Roman Novitsky to music by Nina Simone. The piece, titled A Dialog, is exactly that – a choreographed dialogue between a man and woman who can’t seem to communicate with each other, instead communicating through each other. A Dialog is neither a comedy nor a depressing commentary on a relationship. It’s simply a different way of seeing it – and, as performed by Brown and Da Silva, it’s quite good.

Mackenzie Brown and Adhonay Soares da Silva
in Roman Novitsky’s “A Dialog”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Somehow, despite its surface strangeness, it all works – and the “somehow” is largely provided by Brown, who “somehow” manages to make sense of seemingly senseless choreography, translating Eurodancespeech into something even an American dancegoer can understand. Brown is another who I remember vividly from her YAGP competition performances. [Attending YAGP competition performances gives new depth to the phrase: “watching dancers grow.”]

Bianca Scudamore and Germain Louvet (center)
and Students of JKO School & Joffrey Ballet School
in an excerpt from Pierre Lacotte’s “La Sylphide”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Scudamore and Germain Louvet followed with an excerpt from La Sylphide. The unusual ingredient here is that this La Sylphide isn’t the familiar Bournonville version, but a revision, choreographed by Pierre Lacotte, of the ballet’s “original” incarnation that was choreographed by Filippo Taglioni. The Lacotte version is still danced by the Paris Opera Ballet. Supported by a corps of students from the JKO School and New York’s Joffrey Ballet School, the presentation was both well-executed and educational.

Allen returned thereafter, performing Hans van Manen’s wonderful Five Tangos, to music by Tango king Astor Piazolla.

YAGP International Contemporary Ensemble
in Ohad Naharin’s “Echad Mi Yodea”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

After Hungarian Dances, YAGP’s International Contemporary Ensemble returned, this time performing Ohad Naharin’s Echad Mi Yodea, commonly referred to as “The Chair Dance.” The piece has been performed by many companies worldwide, but this incarnation, perhaps the original, included what sounded like blows from a “shofar” (ram’s horn), and for the first time I sensed the piece’s under-the-table (or chair) connection, as some commentators have observed, to the Holocaust. The group danced it superbly.

YAGP International Contemporary Ensemble
in Ohad Naharin’s “Echad Mi Yodea”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Following intermission, performances resumed with Antonio Casalinho, a Principal with the Bavarian State Ballet, delivering a casually clever interpretation of Ben Van Cauwenbergh’s Les Bourgeois, to music by Jacques Brel. Casalinho is another whose performances I remember clearly from YAGP competitions.

Antonio Casalinho in Ben Van Cauwenbergh’s “Les Bourgeois”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

After the Act II young dancer presentations already discussed, Brandt and Camargo returned with another comic performance of Le Grand Pas de Deux. They were followed by NYCB’s Emma Von Enck and ABT’s Jake Roxander, both Soloists with their respective companies, dancing Balanchine’s familiar Tarantella. There was nothing new to their performances, but simply seeing these exciting and popular young professional dancers performing together was enough.

Elisa Badenes and Marti Paixa
in a pas de deux from John Neumeier’s “Lady of the Camellias”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Thereafter, Badenes and Paixa returned, this time dancing a pas de deux excerpt from John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias, choreographed to music by Chopin. I found it less moving, and more one-dimensional, than the pas de deux from Onegin that they’d performed the previous night, but their execution made the most of it. [At this Gala I happened to be sitting next to one of the foremost interpreters of the role, Irina Dvorovenko.] This was followed by International Principal Artist Brooklyn Mack’s spirited take on Gopak, choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov, a piece that Mack performed at YAGP’s Fifteenth Anniversary Gala ten years ago.  Gopak (also known as Hopak) is a Ukrainian national dance that has also been described as a Cossack dance, and this bravura piece is an often-performed solo excerpt from Zakharov’s Taras Bulba.

Nozomi Iijima and Masaya Yamamoto (face hidden)
in YAGP’s “Don Quixote” Suite
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

The evening concluded with a Don Quixote Suite (similar in format to the Le Corsaire Suite the previous evening). It was a knockout performance, with Misseldine and Bell leading the pack with the Act III pas de deux. The Suite began with Nozomi Iijima and Masaya Yamamoto (from K Ballet, Tokyo) leading the introductory entrance, followed by Espada’s solo performed by ABT’s Calvin Royal III.

Tyler Donatelli in the Kitri, Act 1 variation
from YAGP’s “Don Quixote” Suite
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

Tyler Donatelli, from Houston Ballet, followed with an exuberant Kitri solo from Act I, which was succeeded by Casalinho dancing Basilio’s comically dazzling “Cups” variation. After the Misseldine/ Bell pas de deux, Brown followed with an explosive Kitri variation from Act III, and “Viktoria & Melanie” (there was no indication of these dancers’ full names or affiliations) danced a Bridesmaid’s variation. Bell concluded the suite of dances with Basilio’s Act III variation, after which all the dancers participated in the extensive Coda.

Mackenzie Brown in Kitri’s Act III variation
from YAGP’s “Don Quixote” Suite
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

The evening concluded, as was the case with the previous night’s Gala, with effusive, celebratory bows from the entire cast.

Notwithstanding the elephant in the room, both Galas appeared to have been thoroughly enjoyed by the respective full-house audiences.

Chloe Misseldine and Aran Bell in the Act III Adagio
from YAGP’s “Don Quixote” Suite
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio
in

The elephant in the room

As compellingly performed as the two Galas were, what was presented was different from what had originally been scheduled.

Thursday’s 25th Anniversary Gala was supposed to have concluded with the Le Corsaire Suite, but the casting, according to the Playbill program distributed to all (as well as an available larger type program that was easier to read) was supposed to have included Misseldine, Kimin Kim, and Bell dancing the Adagio, Maria Khoreva dancing a Medora solo, and Kim performing a separate variation prior to the Coda. [Contrary to what many had anticipated, Khoreva had not been scheduled to dance with Kim.]

Friday’s “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” Gala was more significantly changed. Act I was supposed to have concluded with Misseldine and Bell dancing the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake. That piece was deleted from the schedule, and Misseldine and Bell were reassigned to participate in the Don Quixote Suite that concluded Act II as replacements for Nagahisa and Kim. Khoreva and Allen had been scheduled to dance an excerpt from La Bayadere. That piece was deleted, and Allen was given the solo, Five Tangos, instead, which was inserted into Act I.

Constantine Allen in Hans van Manen’s “Five Tangos”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

That YAGP survived these changes is a testament to the organization’s adaptability, and that the dancers were able to adapt to the changes reflects the star professionals that they are.

I’m not connected in any way the YAGP organization; I simply cover, report on, and review certain of its programming. But as a member of the YAGP audience with some familiarity with YAGP, I think more needs to be said than just what was changed and the organization’s and dancers’ ability to quickly shift gears.

Two questions arise at the outset: first, what happened to cause the three Mariinsky dancers’ appearances to be cancelled; and second, why was no announcement made anywhere, at any time, of the cast/ scheduling changes: no revised printed program, no program insert, no posted signs at theater entrance points, and no oral announcement.

I’ll take the second question first. Making scheduling changes at the last minute is not something that has never happened previously at a YAGP Gala; on several prior occasions the audience wasn’t made aware of programming changes until the names of the dancers performing in a particular piece were projected onto a curtain or scrim before that piece began (as was the case here). At times, members of the audience whose conversations I overheard simply assumed that the dancers they saw were those named in the program.

I recognized this same issue in my review of YAGP’s 15th Anniversary Gala. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a YAGP pattern, not unique to this program. Be that as it may, I again recommend that YAGP reconsider its reluctance to advise audience-members of Gala cast changes in advance.

Brooklyn Mack in Rostislav Zakharov’s “Gopak”
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

As to the first question, by the time this is published I suspect anyone who has an interest in ballet knows what happened, and what didn’t happen, with respect to the cancellation of the Mariinsky dancers’ appearances. I’ll provide my own factual background of the pertinent events, but at bottom I know little more than what has already been disclosed publicly (including online).

Essentially, my first direct knowledge of a problem was when the casting for the final piece in Thursday’s Gala was projected, and I saw that it did not include any of the originally scheduled three Mariinsky dancers. Prior to that time, I had no indication that anything was amiss.

What I’ve pieced together from what friends have told me and my own inquiries is that the first indication of objection (that I’m aware of) was a letter from a New York Assemblyman, Hon. Michael Novakhov, dated April 17, the day before the Mariinsky dancers’ scheduled appearances in the first Gala, addressed to the President and CEO of Lincoln Center objecting to the Mariinsky dancers’ appearance, stating, in addition to other comments: “I believe it is totally unacceptable for representatives of an organization that supports the war in Ukraine, and that raises funds on behalf of a regime that is killing Ukrainians, to perform at New York’s Lincoln Center tomorrow night.” Later in the letter he added: “Perhaps in an effort to catch everyone by surprise, their Russian agents kept the participation of the three Mariinsky dancers secret and just released the information at the last minute (yesterday), with the hope that there wouldn’t be enough time to stop their performances.” [The “yesterday” in parenthesis would be April 16; I don’t know what “their Russian agents” refers to, including who the “their” are.]

This was followed later by a Facebook post by a representative of the Consulate General of Ukraine in New York, posted on April 17 at 11:35 p.m., objecting to the three Mariinsky dancers’ appearances.

Each of these documents was made public, to my understanding, via one or more online discussion sites.

I subsequently learned that in the evening of the day the above-referenced communications were written, April 17, YAGP, Lincoln Center, and other friends of YAGP in the ballet world received warnings of protests with respect to the appearances by the three Mariinsky dancers in the YAGP Galas. I don’t know whether this knowledge was independent from, or a product of, the two communications mentioned above.

Thereafter, in consultation with New York City Ballet (which operates the Koch Theater) the decision was made, reportedly with great pain and sadness, to cancel the appearances by Khoreva, Kim, and Nagahisa. I don’t know exactly when this decision was made or when it was communicated to the Mariinsky dancers, but, separately from the above, I was informed (not by anyone connected to YAGP or the Koch Theater) that rehearsals for that evening’s Gala had already begun. I don’t know whether that’s accurate – but, as mentioned above, I know that the Koch Theater auditorium was not opened for ticketholders until a minute or two before the 7 p.m. curtain, to a chorus of continuously ringing bells (the usual bell-ringing, but on steroids) that clearly was an effort to alert audience-members that they had to get to their seats quickly. In my experience, any such delays usually result from a sudden injury (which doesn’t apply here), or for a sudden need for additional rehearsal time.

What follows below, to the extent it is not stated as fact, is my opinion, and is not necessarily the opinion of CriticalDance, or any of its contributing writers.

Inviting the three Mariinsky dancers to participate in the YAGP Galas (I have no information that anything other than that was involved here) is not by itself unusual. [I reference the “Mariinsky dancers” or “the three Mariinsky dancers” as convenient shorthand, not because I consider them to have been “representatives” of the Mariinsky.] YAGP regularly includes in its Galas dancers who had, as students, participated in YAGP competitions and who subsequently achieved prominence in one or another U.S. or international ballet company, and it also frequently includes noteworthy dancers who are not YAGP alumnae (e.g., as mentioned above, Aadji Cissoko). So an invitation to Nagahisa and Kim, both YAGP alumnae, and to Khoreva, not a YAGP alumna (but who had participated in a prior YAGP event), is not by itself unusual.

What, arguably, makes it unusual is that they’re Mariinsky dancers. And in today’s political climate, seemingly anything connected to Russia is suspect and, officially or unofficially, barred – including appearances by Russian dance companies (or other Russian cultural organizations).

Personally, I saw nothing wrong with inviting them, and still don’t. I support Ukraine unequivocally in the war that Russia initiated (and have made donations in support of Ukraine), and I have no objection to the sanctions that have already been imposed against Russia and certain Russian banks and individuals, or to barring certain persons who have publicly supported Russia in the war or profiting from it from entry into the U.S. But to me an individual dancer’s participation in a celebration of YAGP’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary is not in the same league as, say, a Russian athletic team or dancers who knowingly or by clear implication endorse Putin’s war. This is particularly true when the participant is a member of a young dancing generation (as opposed to a veteran) who continues to live in the country he or she has lived in all their lives, or who continues to work for a Russian ballet company that gave them a performance home and pays them for their work, even if that pay is ultimately traceable back to a Russian government entity.

Moreover, barring individual dancers based in Russia from participating in an event that supports a United States organization that has consistently demonstrated its mission to bring young dancers from around the world together to be introduced to major dance company representatives, to be coached by internationally-recognized teachers, and to compete for scholarship opportunities to ballet schools across the globe seems, at least, to be counterproductive. YAGP’s accomplishments should be recognized, even if the recognition is by a Russian dancer: the invited professional dancer isn’t here “representing” that company. The dancer is here on his or her individual artistic merits (and not a little bit based on world-wide popularity). I can’t understand, frankly, why that isn’t manifest to anyone.

And if sanctions against billionaires, including freezing their assets, and against Russia’s industrial and financial entities, aren’t sufficient to stop the war, keeping a few individual dancers from performing to celebrate a not-for-profit U.S. organization won’t stop it either. The only persons it punishes are the individual dancers, the young dancers who may have learned something from them, and those members of the public interested in seeing them perform in the context of recognizing a worthy organization.

But getting past the “why were they invited” issue is only a small part of the story. There are at least two other components to it: how was the arrangement for their appearances made, and were their appearances hidden from public knowledge until the last minute?

As to the first component, I don’t know. It seems highly unlikely to me that the invitation was initiated by some high-ranking Russian politician or Mariinsky officer, but I can’t definitively say otherwise either. I suspect that YAGP made the initial overtures, but I don’t know to whom (they might well have been made directly to the dancers) or in what context they were made, and/or whether there was some intentional effort to evade U.S. sanctions. But any notion that YAGP is in some way anti-Ukraine is patently ridiculous given YAGP’s history of coming to the aid of, and finding opportunities in the West for, young Ukrainian dancers who had no place to go after Putin’s war began.

As to the second question, that one’s easy.

I won’t characterize any motivation behind the Assemblyman’s comments in his April 17th letter, but the appearances were manifestly not hidden from the public until the last minute. As noted previously, on March 10, 2024, I caused to be published in CriticalDance a preview of the YAGP celebration, including identifying the three Mariinsky dancers scheduled to appear at the Galas (without emphasizing them any more than any other professional dancers scheduled to appear).

Moreover, before that preview was published, the information was provided to other press outlets. I know this because I was asked to hold off publishing the information until the pertinent press release was distributed to other outlets, which had to have occurred sometime prior to March 10, when I was given the green light. [I must add, though, that on April 15 I was asked by my PR contact (from an outside company, not internal at YAGP) to remove the reference to Kimin Kim in the preview because it was no longer clear that he would be in a position to attend the Galas. I did so – but the preview’s references to anticipated appearances by the other two Mariinsky dancers remained.]

One way or another, members of the public who would have been interested in this information had knowledge of it, or should have had knowledge of it, at least six weeks before the Galas. If there was any delay until the last minute, after the Mariinsky dancers had already arrived (or at least one of them, Khoreva, who I interviewed in person on April 14), it was not on the part of YAGP.

YAGP 2024 “Stars of Today Meet Stars of Tomorrow”
Entire Cast, Final Bows
Photo by Luke Kwo for LK Studio

The bottom line, in my opinion, is that while the motives underlying prohibitions may be meritorious, and although maintaining our resolve against a government that ordered the invasion of another without cause must be maintained, blanket performance art restrictions or preclusions don’t necessarily evidence that resolve; at times the policy simply encourages and displays unreasonable inflexibility. The policy must be accorded exceptions, at least on an individual by individual and appearance purpose by appearance purpose basis.

In my report on YAGP’s celebration of its 15th Anniversary in 2014, in addition to complaining about unannounced programming changes, I mentioned that one of that year’s Gala’s introductory film clips YAGP included comments about it made by the late Arthur Mitchell, former NYCB Principal and co-founder of Dance Theater of Harlem. He described YAGP as “an opportunity for the global village of dance to come together.” That “global village of dance” becomes less than that when individual artists are unreasonably barred from being a part of it.