Youth America Grand Prix 20th Anniversary, Competition Turned Community

A look at the Youth America Grand Prix 2019 Finals Week

By Sarah Badham

April 19th 2019

When the lights dimmed the audience was not only reminded to turn off their cell phones but also that this is a live audition. In the David H. Koch Theatre on Wednesday April 17th, the prestigious panel of judges is announced and the excitement from the dancers backstage fills the large theatre. This is the final of the Youth America Grand Prix. Young ballerinas from all over the world have been working non-stop to perfect their solos. Now it all comes down to this moment. Competing for scholarships and jobs from the esteemed professionals before them in an evening of athleticism. Consecutive turns, sustained legs and high jumps cause cheers and applause to erupt from dancers in the audience. It is an evening of artistry as each variation allows the soloists to tell a new story. Where the next generation of professional ballerinas take the stage to do what they love. It is truly the Olympics of ballet.

As each finalist enters the empty stage, their name and which variation they will be performing is announced. These classical solos exhibit feats of technique and precision. Basia Rhodan (USA) taps her tambourine behind her head with her foot, and keeps that position sustained just long enough for the applause that comes with holding a picture perfect moment. Harold Mendez (Cuba) jumps high proving his athletic ability to suspend in the air before landing back on the ground. These solos also allow for dancers to embrace the character of their piece. Carson Willey (USA) charms the audience in his variation from Harlequinade through his playful demeanor. Yazmin Verhage (Switzerland) brings the strength and power of La Bayadère in her performance. If these dancers were nervous about dancing on a grand stage, like that of Lincoln Center, you would not be able to tell. Each one commands the space of the theatre as they perform in the final round of competition.

Once the finals are said and done, the Youth America Grand Prix turns its attention away from competition and towards their greater mission of bringing together a community of dancers, choreographers and supporters of dance. On April 18th, the YAGP hosted their 20th anniversary “Stars of Tomorrow Meet the Stars of Today” Gala. From the second the show begins, the stage is flooded with ballerinas dressed in white, coming together as one big family to perform. Young dancers ages nine to nineteen, from all over the world are joined together in their performance of Grand Defilé choreographed by Carlos Dos Santos Jr., to remind the audience the power of unity dance has.

Moving into the ‘Stars of Today’ portion of the evening, older generations of dancers, including many YAGP alumni, take to the stage to present a variety of work including two world premieres. The first of which embrace unity in a different way bringing together ballet with the music of The Rolling Stones. Porte Rouge choreographed by Melanie Hamrick of American Ballet Theatre, uses the powerful music by Mick Jagger as inspiration for this athletic joyful ballet. The first piece, a trio set to “Sympathy of the Devil” engages the audience as the three dancers interact playfully with each other around the stage. In a work focused on uniting  iconic music with ballet, an overwhelming sense of joy drives the dancers. This carries on as we move into a delightful pas de deux set to “She’s a Rainbow.” The dancers in front of a rainbow backdrop, adorned with multi-colored fabric shift the audience into a mellow state, still continuing the athleticism and joy we find in the first section. The final portion of the ballet changes this feeling all together. The four male dancers come together in front of the black curtain and perform an electrified number to “Paint it Black.” With hard-hitting drums and a melodic guitar, the dancers find a balance between thrashing movements with moments of quiet sways, as though they are simply enjoying the music. “Paint it Black” takes quite a contrast to the first two numbers exhibiting the dynamics and dimensions of The Rolling Stones music as well as the dynamics of Hamrick’s choreography. Overall the ballet is powerful and joyful for the audience to experience. When using iconic music is in dance, there is a tricky balance of creating work to highlight the music while allowing it to also inspire it. Hamrick’s choreography has a sense of play that allows the audience to revisit this music as though they are jamming out on their own, while being invited into this world where the dancers personify the music.

The second world premiere of the evening, Nothing Left choreographed by Juliano Nunes, is intimate in contrast. Boston Ballet’s Derek Dunn enters the stage with Juliano Nunes and move fluidly together. There are moments where you are sure they are connected physically but cannot figure out how. When one dancer breaks away and begins a solo, this connection remains between the two even if they are not touching. As they weave in and out of duet and solo, the audience is captivated by their strength and there relation to one another physically and emotionally.

The brilliance of the evening does not stop at these world premieres. In Caught choreographed by David Parsons, Zoey Anderson captivates the audience the second she enters her first spotlight. The true magic begins through the use of strobe lights and Anderson’s fiercely athletic jumps, when she appears to fly around the stage. Light Rain choreographed by Gerald Arpino featuring Lucia Lacarra of Victor Ullate Ballet and Fabrice Calmels of Joffery Ballet, is another moment of intimate connection paired with fluid strength. You cannot keep your eyes off Lacarra and Calmels as they move through impressive extensions with as much ease as though they were walking down the street. In a touching moment on stage, ABT’s Calvin Royal III dedicates both his performances in Porte Rouge and Fokine’s Dying Swan to the late Arthur Mitchell of Dance Theatre of Harlem.

With a variety of performances interspersed with videos of YAGP competitors discussing their relationship with dance, it is easy to see the importance of this organization and how their contributions over the past twenty years have helped to shape the ballet community. No matter if you are a dancer, or a patron of the arts – YAGP invites you into their community. Once you are in it, you are a part of it for life. It is amazing to see how many YAGP alumni come back from all over the world to share in this gala, clearly representing their passion for this organization and are thankful for all it has done for them. As the next generation of ballet stars finishes their week at the YAGP finals, it is exciting to see them move forward knowing that the Youth America Grand Prix is a community of artists and appreciators of dance that they are a part of forever.

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