Gold Medal winner, Classical Dance, Senior Women - Yu Kurihara of Ikuko Watanabe Ballet Studio, Japan.  Photo © Siggul-VAM

Gold Medal winner, Senior Women:
Yu Kurihara of Ikuko Watanabe Ballet Studio, Japan.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

April 12, 2015: Semi-Final, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, NYU, New York, NY
April 15, 2015: Finals, David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY

It’s spring in New York, finally, writes CriticalDance’s Jerry Hochman, and when spring happens, so does the Youth America Grand Prix. Here, he looks back at 2015’s gathering that is not just a competition, but also part convention, part classroom and coaching opportunity, part scholarship award program, and part international ballet reunion.

For the past 16 years, YAGP has brought together not only sylvan streets of budding bunheads, but also a potpourri of teachers and coaches, school administrators, ballet moms (and dads), dancewear salespeople, professional dancers, well-heeled culture mavens, and hangers-on to witness the assemblage of, and competition among, roughly 1200 young dancers – probably more in one place at one time than can be found anywhere else in the world. The program is not without flaws, many of which come with big competition territory, but overall it’s a remarkable event.

Aside from five days of semi-finals at New York University’s Skirball Center, and a final at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center on April 15, the YAGP festivities included two galas: the annual Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow on April 16; and Legacy on April 17, introduced by American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal David Hallberg, and in which dancers representing the companies that nourished his professional development performed.

But above all, YAGP is a celebration of young talent. Seeing a small army of baby ballerinas and the considerably smaller battalion of young danseurs (as always, treated like rock stars by their adoring female counterparts) marching to and from venues in the Lincoln Center area to attend classes or rehearsals prompted even jaded New Yorkers to stop and stare. But it’s not just their number. The caliber of these young dancers is so high it’s scary – and it helps explain why the population of excellent young professional dancers has exploded beyond the usual national and regional companies. To fulfill their potential and perform, these dancers have to go somewhere. Since the major companies cannot take them all, there has been a qualitative boom, benefitting not only the dancers, but audiences that have the opportunity to see superb dancers in local venues.

Most YAGP competitors start a long way from New York City. This year, some 7,000 of them first performed in preliminary competitions in 15 U.S. cities and countries around the globe. Of those, and by my unofficial count, 120 junior women and 22 junior men (ages 12-14), and 110 senior women and 77 senior men (ages 15-19), reached the New York finals. The finalists (although with respect
to the New York proceedings they’re effectively semi-finalists) must each perform an excerpt from a classical ballet and a contemporary solo. There are also categories for pas de deux and ensemble dances – the word ‘ensemble’ encompassing groups large enough to populate a major city. Judges drawn primarily from ballet schools rank each dancer’s performance in multiple respects.

Gold Medal winner, Senior men Shogo Hayami of the John cranko School, Stuttgart.  Photo © Siggul/VAM

Gold Medal winner, Senior Men
Shogo Hayami of the John Cranko School, Stuttgart.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

From these ‘semi-finalists’ are culled the ‘finalists’: this year, the top 25 junior women, 10 junior men, 20 senior women, and 19 senior men. These dancers performed in the final round at Lincoln Center on April 15.

In previous years, I noted that the dancers were so good that I could not fathom how the judges could rank them. This year, in the one semi-final round I saw, I decided to see how my evaluations would fare against the professionals. I loosely ranked the dancers based on the overall impression I had of their performances. As fine as they all were, I found I could distinguish those who I thought performed on a somewhat higher level. To my surprise, most of the dancers I’d determined to be exceptional made it to the final round. Deciding between the finalists in the final round was tougher, particularly with the junior women, so many of whom performed at an extraordinarily high level.

The Youth Grand Prix winner (the only Grand Prix awarded this year), Shin-Yong Kim from South Korea, exemplifies this extraordinary level of achievement. The combination of the overall quality of her execution, coupled with her phrasing and musicality, yielded a performance of a variation from Esmeralda that was jaw-dropping, and so incompatible with her unaffected and sweet offstage demeanor that it was difficult to believe that her scintillating performance came from the same person. When the awards were announced, no one in the house seemed more genuinely shocked than this somewhat shy-looking 14-year old. Following the awards ceremony on Thursday April 15, I happened to be within steps of her in the DHK Theater lobby where she met two adult women, one of whom loudly proclaimed, “You won! You won!” And this little dancer just smiled a huge, disarming smile, still looking somewhat dazed, as if the thought of ‘winning’ had never crossed her mind, and she still didn’t believe it.

There are other sides to this too, of course. There’s instant celebrity: I watched as the first place senior woman was interviewed for Japanese television on the Lincoln Center steps – already, apparently, a national personality. And there’s agony. As I left the theater, I saw one young contestant sobbing in her mother’s (or maybe her coach’s) arms, most likely because the results didn’t’ meet her dreams. But all this is a microcosm of what performance life is, and should not detract from the sense of camaraderie and accomplishment that YAGP provides to all the contestants, and the opportunity it provides to a fortunate viewer to see the secure (and exponentially developing) future of the art form.

Youth Grand Prix winner (Junior age division), Shin-Yong Kim, Sunhwa Arts Middle-High School, South Korea. Photo © Siggul-VAM

Youth Grand Prix winner (Junior age division),
Shin-Yong Kim, Sunhwa Arts Middle/High School, South Korea.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

As YAGP repeatedly emphasizes, it may be a competition, and there may be awards, but it’s not exclusively about winning. Before announcing the competition winners, scholarships were awarded – primarily to promising younger dancers whose technical and performance abilities are most malleable at this stage. The presenters, representing more than twenty five ballet schools, both independent and affiliated with major companies, awarded close to 300 scholarships, including short term, long term, and summer intensive, as well as junior company or apprentice contracts. Even though there were several duplications, these scholarship winners filled the stage. And most significantly, these scholarships are not awarded solely on performance criteria, as is the case with the winners. They take other factors, including class attitude and achievement, and the particular needs of the school or company, into consideration as well.

Many of these young dancers, including several who did not ‘win’ trophies, made strong impressions, not only for the quality of their execution, but for a degree of personal magnetism and warmth far beyond their years (they weren’t all stoic ice princesses or princes merely executing steps). Though it’s tempting to single out several, doing so would be inappropriate and unnecessarily cumbersome – although I note that the South Korean contingent, as well as that from the Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program, provided what appeared to be a disproportionate number of outstanding young contestants; and the group of young girls from Portugal, like last year, should have won a medal based on overall cuteness alone. Suffice it to say that I will remember them, and will look forward to seeing their professional performances in the years ahead.

A complete list of the 2015 winners and other top ranked dancers can be found here.

As an event, and all things considered, YAGP ran quite smoothly. But there are some areas for improvement. It still feels wrong that administrators from ‘independent’ schools are included as judges of competitors from their own schools. While any favoritism can be cancelled out by the sheer number of judges, there is an appearance of impropriety that could easily be avoided. And the criteria that the judges consider in evaluating these young dancers (assuming that there are specific criteria), and the weight given to the contemporary vs. ballet dances, should be made clear – if not announced, then in the programs.

Gold Medal, Pre-competitive age division, women, Satya Tranfield, Charleston Ballet Theatre Center for Dance Education, SC. Photo © Siggul-VAM

Gold Medal, Pre-competitive age division, women,
Satya Tranfield, Charleston Ballet Theatre Center for Dance Education, SC.
Photo © Siggul/VAM

Most obvious, and most critical, is that attempts should be made to avoid unnecessarily scaring, or scarring, these children. Comments by overly glib masters of ceremony like “their lives will be changed forever” or that “some contestants will win scholarships that may determine the rest of their lives” is unnecessary hyperbole that can only negatively, and unnecessarily, impact those who are not given scholarships or who did not win trophies. And the annual recitation of the huge number of YAGP ‘alumnae’ dancing with major companies is fair comment, but no effort is made to relate these alumnae to the winners. If there is any connection between winning a place in the competition and professional success with a company, that should be emphasized. Otherwise, the number of YAGP alumnae having professional careers can be seen as a mere consequence of fishing with a huge net.

Finally, the awards presentation looks amateurish. The actual competition is run well, with the disembodied voices of the persons announcing the contestants clear and apparently accurate. But the awards ceremony was embarrassing. At the very least, the masters of ceremony should be aware that ‘Latin America’ is not a country, and the winners should be referenced both by number and name. More importantly, the names of the winners (and the judges, for that matter – how does one, at a ballet competition, mispronounce Susan Jaffe?), should be transliterated so they can be properly pronounced. And laughing over mispronouncing a name, or not being able to read some judge’s scribble, is inexcusable.

But in the overall scheme of things, these criticisms aren’t important. The young dancers are. And their abundance and quality has made YAGP the international success that it has become.

I continue to have mixed feelings about dance competitions in general. But YAGP is not significant because it’s a prestigious competition – though many consider it that. It’s a force, as much about propulsion as recognition. Major ballet companies hold auditions around the country, and have outreach programs that attempt to ferret out young dancers who may not have access to privileged schools. But none is as comprehensive as YAGP. It’s a ballet search engine of sorts, gathering potential professional dancers, and potential stars, from ballet schools located in worldwide nooks and crannies – and I don’t doubt that YAGP’s global reach will continue to expand in the future. And while I may complain about the
absence of quality in many of the new dances that YAGP presented in its subsequent galas, I wouldn’t expect anything less from an organization that, although indebted to ballet’s past, has its feet firmly planted in ballet’s future.

For Jerry Hochman’s report of the YAGP Gala, Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow, click here.

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