Hope Award winner Antonio Casalinho of the Annarella Academia de Ballet e Dança, Portugal in his variation from Don Quixote.  Photo © Siggul/VAM

Hope Award winner Antonio Casalinho of the Annarella Academia de Ballet e Dança, Portugal in his variation from Don Quixote.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; April 16, 2015

Jerry Hochman

This year’s annual Youth America Grand Prix Gala, in front of an audience liberally sprinkled with current and former professional dancers, was significantly streamlined. The focus was on youth and new choreography:  the few classical choreographic excursions that there were appeared to have been selected to intentionally provide a stark contrast to those dances that were more contemporary..

The first half of the program consisted of performances by YAGP contestants – most, but not all, winners in their categories. The winner of the Hope Award (the equivalent of the Grand Prix, at the Pre-Competition level), 11 year old Antonio Casalinho from Portugal, wowed the audience with his variation from Don Quixote, followed by an excellent performance of the pas de deux from Grand Pas Classique, danced by second place pas de deux winners Juliette Bosco (12) and Theophilus Pilette (15).

Following a lovely and intricate ensemble piece, Jasmine, performed by twenty-five young dancers from the Morningstar Dance Academy of Atlanta, the solos continued with a reprise of her variation from Esmeralda by Grand Prix winner Shin-Yong Kim; Matheus Vaz Guimaraes (18), from Germany, who danced a contemporary piece, Porto Que Sinto; and the first place ensemble winner, the dramatic Danse Boheme from Carmen, exquisitely performed by twenty-four dancers from the Ellison School of New York.

Semyon Chudin in the pas de deux from The Pharoah's Daughter.  Photo © Siggul/VAM

Semyon Chudin in the pas de deux from The Pharoah’s Daughter.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

The student performances concluded with Kennedy Kallas (14) and Austin Acevedo (15) dancing a contemporary pas de deux – or pas de trois, if you include the hanging light bulb – Who Is My Shadow (a dance not performed during the competition, but one which the pair has performed elsewhere); Senior Mens first place winner Shogo Hayami performing Solo for Diego; and Senior Womens first place winner Yu Kurihara’s crystalline variation from Paquita.

The student portion of the evening concluded with The Grand Defile, an annual piece d’occasion choreographed by YAGP’s Resident Choreographer Carlos dos Santos, Jr. which somehow accommodated more than 250 students on the DHK Theater stage. Getting all these young dancers to learn a dance, any dance, in such a brief time span is extraordinary; getting the dancers to look good and the performance to be exciting to watch unfold as well is somewhat miraculous.

The “Stars of Today” part of the program, involving professional dancers, was a mixed bag. The evening included only two classical ballet excerpts. The main pas de deux from The Pharoah’s Daughter, danced by Bolshoi Ballet principals Evgenia Obraztsova and Semyon Chudin, is a dull excerpt from Pierre Lacotte’s equally dull reconstruction of Marius Petipa’s 1862 creation. When the Bolshoi brought the ballet to New York in 2005, I was underwhelmed. Some lost ballets are lost for a reason, and even the estimable leads, Svetlana Zakharova and Nikolai Tsiskaridze, couldn’t save it. The pas de deux suffers from all the antiquated constructs that plagued the ballet as a whole: interminable dead spots, milked applause, coupled with undistinguished choreography. Indeed, the most visually interesting aspect of the pas de deux was the Egyptian artwork projected against the stage’s back wall.

Isabella Boylston and Kimin Kim in Pas de Deux from Le Corsaire.  Photo © Siggul/VAM

Isabella Boylston and Kimin Kim in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

The warhorse pas de deux from Le Corsaire, which closed the evening, fared somewhat better. Danced by ABT’s Isabella Boylston and the Mariinsky’s Kimin Kim, it was at least fun to watch, and never dull. Compared to Mr. Kim, who, appropriately for this pas de deux, flew across the stage like a dancer possessed, Ms. Boylston looked demure and almost classy.

While not particularly memorable, the contemporary ballets were somewhat more successful. Verano Porteno by Mauricio Wainrot, receiving its New York premiere, is a brief, stunning duet danced passionately and exquisitely by Paloma Herrera (due to retire during ABT’s upcoming Met Season), and Juan Pablo Ledo of the Teatro Colon. Anton Pimonov’s Double Polka, presented as part of YAGP’s Emerging Choreographer Series, is a fun piece with a somewhat contemporary commedia dell’arte flavor. ABT’s Calvin Royal III and the Mariinsky’s Kristina Shapran were both delightful – and Ms. Shapran, who I highlighted during the Marrinsky’s recent season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a gem.

Ballet 101, by Eric Gauthier, which also received its New York premiere, is the kind of pointless piece that some love to dismiss, but I, and the audience, loved it. To a deadpan comic narration, the Mariinsky’s Xander Parish executed all “101 ballet positions”. If Etudes were converted to a virtuosic comic male solo and confined to small patch of stage, it might look a little like Ballet 101.

The other pieces, including two world premieres, were less successful, despite fine performances by the dancers.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood of The Royal Ballet in a pas de deux from Qualia. Photo © Siggul-VAM

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood of The Royal Ballet in a pas de deux from Qualia.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

Perhaps most annoying was Wayne McGregor’s pas de deux from Qualia, another New York premiere. McGregor’s dances – at least those I’ve seen – look alike, and consist of dancers manipulating and contorting their bodies in ways that look like a form of torture. I’ve seen it before. I’ve even seen the underwear/costumes before – those in Qualia look almost identical to those in his Borderlands. And even though the thrust of this piece may have been somewhat different from others (this, to me, was primarily an intense sexual encounter), any emotional message was overwhelmed by the technical histrionics. That being said, the dancers – the Royal Ballet’s Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood – were astonishing. Hamilton in particular deserves accolades for undergoing what must have been a painful deboning process prior to the performance.

This segment of the program opened with a passionate display of Latin ballroom dancing by ballroom champions Denys Drozdyuk and Antonina Skobina, in the New York premiere of Espana Cani. But aside from the passion that permeated the stage, it was unexceptional.

Emery LeCrone’s Minuet from String Quartet No. 15 (Mozart) was an earnest effort earnestly performed by NYCB’s Teresa Reichlen and Zachara Catazaro, but it was no more than that. Perhaps most disappointing was the world premiere of Windy Sand, choreographed by Alexei Kremnev to an original composition by Karen LeFrak. The music was pleasant enough, but one-dimensional, and the choreography added little to it. The dancers, from the Joffrey Studio Company, looked lovely as they performed it, but the piece did not move beyond exuding a sense of…windy sand.

For Jerry Hochman’s report of the YAGP Finals, click here.

For his report of the YAGP Gala, David Hallberg Presents: LEGACY, click here.