The handful of elite ballet competitions in this country and abroad are very different from their more mainstream counterparts. While some are geared toward professionals, others are primarily for students, for whom a win can be an important step toward success in a professional career. At the student level, preparing dancers to compete involves carefully assessing their technical and artistic capabilities, selecting an appropriate solo or variation from the classical repertory and coaching them on appropriate behavior and attitude.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s not the medals that count, but the opportunity for students to mature technically, artistically and emotionally as dancers. DT tracked down four teachers who both coach students and judge at some of the biggest competitions around the world to discuss proper training and how to help dancers make the most of their experience.
Evaluate Technique, Artistry & Presentation
There is no magic formula—and no set of requirements laid out by competitions—for determining if a student is ready to compete. Mikhail Tchoupakov, an assistant professor/lecturer in the University of Utah’s Department of Ballet, explains that students are not required to perform, say, five or six pirouettes as a prerequisite to compete. “It all depends on the competitor,” says Tchoupakov, who has worked for Youth America Grand Prix as an organizer, master teacher, choreographer and judge since 2000. “You can’t do more than your physical abilities allow you to do.”
After all, he notes, judges are looking for more than excellent technique. “At the student level, of course the judges want to see technique, but they’re also looking for potential,” says Tchoupakov. “A lot of these competitions are designed to find talent and develop it later” at a larger, more professional school.
Nevertheless, Sarah-Jane Measor, ballet director and co-owner of California-based Menlo Park Academy of Dance, does all she can to make sure her students are as competition-ready as possible. Measor, who took a number of ballet students to the YAGP in San Francisco earlier this year, requires that dancers meet a class attendance minimum before she invites them to enter a competition. Doing so helps ensure that they have the technique to support them throughout the rehearsal process and preparation.
Measor is also careful to ascertain if students have the requisite stage presence before allowing them to compete–a smart idea. Eleanor D’Antuono, artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition and resident coach for Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts, who has served on the judging panel at YAGP as well, explains that while judges will always be impressed by fine technique and line, quality of movement and professional presentation often win out. Presentation is also an important factor in the technique classes that students are required to take in addition to performing their variation. “They are judged on both, which is very good because classwork tells a lot. Anybody can practice a solo for hours and hours, but in class you can really see how they plie and how they approach exercises,” says Measor.
Choosing the Best Solo
To select an appropriate variation or solo for a particular student, keep in mind his or her strengths, capabilities and weaknesses. If you don’t already have a strong relationship, observe the student taking class or get to know him or her in another way. “Look at the student honestly and see what suits them,” says Eleanor D’Antuono, artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition and resident coach for Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. Speaking as a judge, she adds, “I am naturally going to look for something that the dancer can accomplish and shows them to their best.”
Regina Zarhina, an associate professor at UU’s Department of Ballet and Tchoupakov’s wife, echoes these sentiments. “Look at the student’s strength and show it off,” she says. “Try to hide the limitations.” When selecting a variation for a female student, Zarhina recommends avoiding principal variations, as they were generally choreographed on the best ballerinas of their time and therefore require a certain level of maturity and understanding of style. “Try to go for the secondary or soloist variations,” she suggests. Adds Measor, “The judges want to see students they’re good at, not what they can’t do. You’re not going to give a variation or a solo with a lot of pirouettes, for example, to somebody who doesn’t pirouette that well.”
It’s also crucial to preserve the historical accuracy of the choreography you are working with. Keep in mind that judges become irritated when they see classical variations altered or performed without sensitivity for the source material. “It’s a huge responsibility to have a student perform a classical variation,” explains Zarhina. “It’s something that’s been passed from generation to generation.” Tchoupakov attributes some of the faux-pas seen on competition stages—“wrong choreography,” “distasteful costumes”—to poor coaching. “It’s not the student’s fault,” he says. “It’s the teacher’s.”
Conveying the Right Attitude
If you’re entering a student in a ballet competition for the first time, “go with an open mind,” says Measor. Zarhina agrees, noting that it’s best to stay flexible and not be disappointed if things don’t turn out as you might have wanted. In other words, prepare to learn rather than to win.
D’Antuono stresses that the opportunity to train in a professional manner is the true take-home prize. “The real value is for the students to be working on something in a detailed fashion,” she says. “They get to go a step beyond, they find things in themselves, and they discover.” Tchoupakov encourages students view competition as “an experience, an extra chance to go onstage and an extra chance to see what level you’re compared to.”
Adds Measor, “in the grand scheme of things, the outcome is not important. It’s the journey.” DT
Alison Duke is a New Hampshire based dancer, teacher and writer who contributes to Pointe, Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.