Brooklyn Academy of Music
Brooklyn, New York

April 28, 2016
Gala: Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow

Jerry Hochman

After the rigors of the annual Youth America Grand Prix finals competition in New York, the focus shifts to celebration. Each year YAGP presents one or more gala performances to honor that year’s competitors, to showcase infrequently seen professional dancers, and not coincidentally, to raise funds.

The first night of this year’s two-evening galas was YAGP’s annual Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow program. The procedure this year was somewhat different from those I recall from prior years – the competition ‘winners’ had not yet been announced, so those young dancers who participated did not necessarily represent those who had been awarded medals (first, second, or third place in a category, or overall Grand Prix winner) or scholarships, and there were fewer of them during that portion of the performance than there had been in the past. That being said, it wasn’t too great a logical leap to assume – correctly as it turned out – that most of those who performed would be officially recognized during the next day’s Awards Ceremony and performance (which I was unable to attend). A list of award-winners is included in a separate review of YAGP’s 2016 Final Round.

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko of the Bolshoi Ballet in the Pas de Deux from "Marco Spada" Photo Siggul/VAM

Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko of the Bolshoi Ballet
in the Pas de Deux from “Marco Spada”
Photo Siggul/VAM

Also different in quality from prior years was the Stars of Today segment. To put it bluntly, while several of these professional dancers are doubtless ‘stars’ on a certain level, or deserve to be, this year’s program did not include scheduled dancers with the same reputation, at least in the U.S., or the same anticipatory buzz, as the professional dancers in years past. In that sense, this part of the gala was more akin to ‘stars of tomorrow meet the stars of the day after tomorrow.’

Be that as it may, there were some superb performances, as well as examples of last minute heroics by New York City Ballet’s Daniel Ulbricht, and American Ballet Theatre’s Sarah Lane, who both filled in on late notice and with limited, if any, rehearsal time.

YAGP’s Stars of Today Meet The Stars of Tomorrow galas have always – at least for as long as I’ve been attending them – focused less on warhorses and more on more innovative dances or classical pieces not frequently seen, which may not be as impressive as the more familiar pieces but that address where ballet might be going rather than where it’s been. To a large extent, this was true this year as well.

After opening with an ‘overture’ (Paganini’s Capriccio No. 5) by Elizabeth Aoki, a young violinist who appeared on a YAGP gala program two years ago, accompanied by a film that described in brief snippets the entire YAGP process, both at and apart from the competition, the young dancers were given their opportunity to shine.

Those who danced in the Stars of Tomorrow portion of the evening included Itsuku Masuda, a 12-year-old from Japan, dancing a contemporary piece titled Havanolo; Amit Hason and Romi Yellen, two 16-year-olds from the Unison Dance School in Israel (a school that fosters cooperation between Israeli Jews and Arabs), dancing Max, a piece by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin; Antonio Casalinho, age 12 from Portugal, repeating the remarkable variation from Le Corsaire that he performed in the previous night’s Final Round; 18-year-olds Thays Golz and Guilherme Maciel of Brazil, dancing a contemporary piece titled Shelter; Yu Hang, 16, from the People’s Republic of China, repeating her exciting variation from La Esmeralda from the previous night; Vincenzo De Prima, an 18-year-old from Austria, dancing Shadows of Red, his own very fine piece of choreography, 17-year-old Narcisco Alejandro Medina Arias, from Cuba, repeating his soaring variation from Don Quixote, Kenedy Kallas, 15, from the USA, dancing a contemporary piece, obviously created for her, choreographed by Garrett Smith, called Kallas with a K; and 17-year-old Joonhyuk Jun, from the United Kingdom/Republic of Korea, repeating his stellar performance from the Final Round in a variation from La Bayadere.

Daniel Camargo of the Stuttgart Ballet in the Pas de Deux from "Diana and Acteon" Photo Siggul/VAM

Daniel Camargo of the Stuttgart Ballet
in the Pas de Deux from “Diana and Acteon”
Photo Siggul/VAM

These dances were followed by a film tribute to Shelley King, YAGP’s Director of Operations, who passed away last year. At its conclusion, her daughter Rebecca King, a soloist with the Finnish National Ballet, and NYCB’s Amar Ramasar, danced the New York premiere of Peter Quanz’s duet, Blushing. It’s a lovely piece, impressively and beautifully performed by both dancers, and an appropriate tribute to a woman I didn’t know, but who apparently everyone in else in the dance world did, and who apparently everyone in the dance world loved.

The section concluded with the annual Grand Defile, choreographed by Carlos dos Santos, Jr. This dance, featuring over 200 YAGP participants, is prepared during the week-long finals, squeezed in between the young dancers’ competition performances and classes, and all component parts are apparently assembled at virtually the last minute. It seems to get better, and more miraculous, each year. That it works as well as it always does is not only a tribute to the dancers themselves and the patience and skill of dos Santos and his rehearsal associates, but also to the YAGP concept – these people largely did not know each other prior to the New York finals, come from different cultural backgrounds, and speak different languages. It’s a sublime celebration of unity among differences, and of ballet as a universal language.

The Stars of Today segment did not get off to a good start.

Invocation, a world premiere choreographed by Josie Walsh, is the kind of piece that makes my skin crawl. Lots of people think that this is where ballet is, or should be going. If that’s where it’s going, ballet may well be, as others have written, in trouble.

Walsh specializes in edgy, fusion dances, and this dance, to music by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, fits that mold. Both Zimmer and Howard are Hollywood composers of considerable renown, best known perhaps, for their collaboration on the score of certain Batman films (e.g., The Dark Knight). I don’t know whether the music used here is from one of their collaborations, or derived from independent compositions, but its Hollywood super-hero roots show.

Essentially, Walsh seems to be making an attempt to fuse ballet with testosterone-driven muscle dance, but the fusion is only skin deep, as the lone ballet dancer has already been converted to the dark side when the piece begins, and her ballet moves look like visual daggers. With its ponderous, dark atmosphere (music, costumes, lighting, and choreography), Invocation looks like a heavy metal music video that attempts to add a little class to the usual aggressiveness, or a piece that might appear on Dancing With the Stars on a program dedicated to superheroes – during a commercial.

Stella Abrera of American Ballet Theatre and Freestyle Dancers in Josie Walsh's "Invocation" Photo Siggul/VAM

Stella Abrera of American Ballet Theatre and Freestyle Dancers
in Josie Walsh’s “Invocation”
Photo Siggul/VAM

Here, a ballerina, Stella Abrera of ABT, is ‘supported’ by six men, collectively described as “Freestyle Artists.” There is what appears to be a ballet barre running vertically center stage, which is used more as a stationary divider of sorts, as well as a rack on which Abrera is occasionally spread. From the outset, Abrera looked tough as nails in an oversized wig/hat (which she removed soon after piece began – though not soon enough), but also thoroughly discontented, if not horrified, to be doing what she was doing. This may have reflected the appearance she was obligated to assume in context (a lean, mean, dark, badass ballerina superhero; or maybe the boys’ vicious den mother), or her true feelings about being mired in this piece.

Michaela DePrince and Edo Wijnen, both dancers with the Dutch National Ballet, followed, and quickly brought some light back to the program. Dancing George Balanchine’s Tarantella, the two were abundantly capable and their enthusiasm was contagious. Wijnen, making his New York professional debut, executed his role quite well, and DePrince, more compact than NYCB dancers I’ve seen in the role and somewhat tentative at the outset, quickly loosened up and delivered the energy, sparkle, and sassiness that her role requires.

Every Stars of Today program seems to have a male angst-driven contemporary dance solo. This year, Daniel Camargo, a principal dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet (and also making his New York professional debut), presented the U.S. premiere of Firebreather, choreographed by Katarzyna Kozielska. Based on the brief biography provided, Camargo, a relatively tall, finely chiseled dancer, has a comfort level with muscular power displays, both those that are somewhat restrained, as was the case with this piece, or later in the evening, during his solos in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux. Firebreather, however, is not much more than a series of poses punctuated by occasional airborne flight.

Hannah O’Neill and Hugo Marchand of the Paris Opera Ballet in the Pas de Deux from "Esmeralda" Photo Siggul/VAM

Hannah O’Neill and Hugo Marchand
of the Paris Opera Ballet
in the Pas de Deux from “La Esmeralda”
Photo Siggul/VAM

Hannah O’Neill and Hugo Marchand, both from the Paris Opera Ballet (and both making their NY professional debuts), followed. O’Neill, only 23, has had a meteoric rise since winning the YAGP gold medal (first place) in the Senior Women solo category in 2010, and it’s easy to see why. She has a solid technique, as well as a sweetly serene presence – she’d be a perfect Giselle. But the pas de deux from La Esmeralda was not the best of choices. She looked unsteady, particularly when being partnered, but also somewhat underwhelming in her solo variation. More significantly, there are different ways to execute the solo (more restrained and classical; or more vivacious, with bravura technical displays). I’ve seen it done both ways. But in this competition, many young women dance this solo (particularly, it seems, young Asian entrants), and they all approach it in a way that makes it exciting to watch. O’Neill chose the more restrained choreography, and her performance suffered by comparison.

If you watch television’s America’s Got Talent, you doubtless have previously seen Rachel Kivlighan and Nick Mishoe’s Blue Shadow, one of brightest lights in that program’s recent seasons. The piece is a sweetly whimsical merger of projected film and dance, superbly and seamlessly assembled, and Ms. Kivlighan, who is now with Orlando Ballet II, is a lovely dancer. But the BAM stage seemed to gobble it up – though it has lost none of its imagination and creativity, it looked much more pleasingly intimate on the small screen.

Pierre Lacotte’s Marco Spada is Big Ballet. Recently resurrected by the Bolshoi Ballet (with David Hallberg as the male lead at its premiere), the piece as a whole has not yet been performed live in New York. Consequently, even the opportunity to see a pas de deux from Marco Spada live was something to look forward to. But this pas de deux, performed by the Bolshoi Ballet’s Ekaterina Krysanova and Artem Ovcharenko, looked both overstuffed and lightweight at the same time. The bewigged dancers looked as starched as they were supposed to look, and danced the pas de deux well, but out of context it just looks a time traveled relic. Ovcharenko, nevertheless, looked particularly polished throughout.

Daniel Ulbricht of New York City Ballet in Servy Gallardo's "Piazzolla Tango" Photo Siggul/VAM

Daniel Ulbricht of New York City Ballet
in Servy Gallardo’s “Piazzolla Tango”
Photo Siggul/VAM

And then came the subs. It seems that every year, dancers initially scheduled to appear do not, and are replaced at the last minute. This was the case with the pas de deux from Manon, which was to have been danced by Melissa Hamilton and Xander Parish, both YAGP veterans. Reportedly, Parish suffered a last minute injury, so instead of securing a replacement (which might have been impossible), Ulbricht substituted with a solo – Piazzolla Tango, choreographed by Servy Gallardo. Ulbricht, whom I once described as a combination bowling ball thrown for a strike and soaring eagle in flight, delivered his usual stellar performance.

But Lane, a 2002 YAGP bronze medal winner, who replaced the previously announced Gillian Murphy in the Diana and Acteon pas de deux on short notice as well, had a tougher road to hoe. It’s one thing to dance a solo, but a duet requires coordination with a partner, and insufficient rehearsal time can prove disastrous – or at the very least induce understandable and distracting concern. Add to that that Lane had not previously danced with Camargo, and had performed the Diana and Acteon pas de deux professionally only once before, for YAGP (I checked – the only record I found was from a 2006 gala, with Joseph Phillips), and the situation becomes all the more perilous. Consequently, that both of them got through it without error or injury (I noticed some partnering glitches, but under the circumstances, that’s not a surprise) is not only commendable, but quite remarkable.

Sarah Lane of American Ballet Theatre and Daniel Camargo of the Stuttgart Ballet in the Pas de Deux from "Diana and Acteon" Photo Siggul/VAM

Sarah Lane of American Ballet Theatre
and Daniel Camargo of the Stuttgart Ballet
in the Pas de Deux from “Diana and Acteon”
Photo Siggul/VAM

And only a few days earlier Lane had been a late substitution in the Dancers Against Cancer gala in New York, partnered by ….Ulbricht.

The fact that these last minute heroics were not memorialized in a program insert or pre-performance announcement is regrettable – the audience didn’t learn of these substitutions until screenshots introducing the next performance on the program were flashed on the stage screen. Be that as it may, what Ulbricht and Lane did represents the kind of selflessness, as opposed to all too common self-promotion and aggrandizement, that should be recognized and encouraged. And it’s appropriate that it happened here – it also is emblematic of the goals and attitude that YAGP fosters among its participants.