On a sticky Mississippi morning in June, several dozen of the world’s most promising young dancers gathered in the mezzanine of Thalia Mara Hall in downtown Jackson, collectively holding their breath. They’d spent the last two weeks performing endless rounds of Le Corsaire, La Esmeralda and Grand Pas Classique at the USA International Ballet Competition, an Olympics-style event held in Jackson every four years. As Edward Villella, this year’s jury chairman, prepared to reveal the winners, he momentarily put down his list of names and addressed the crowd: “I would like to say, if you walk away without a medal, you at least walk away with a terrific, terrific experience.”
Indeed, the USA IBC encompasses much more than the competition it’s famous for. The campus of Belhaven University—where competitors lived together in the dormitories, took ballet classes and rehearsed—served as a virtual dancer village, allowing them to intermingle and socialize. Jury members, including Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater and Nina Ananiashvili, artistic director of the State Ballet of Georgia, taught the competitors’ daily class. In addition, many who didn’t advance to the finals chose to keep dancing anyway, rehearsing an ensemble piece choreographed by Point Park University professor Peter Merz, which they later performed at the awards gala. Meanwhile, the USA IBC Dance School, a two-week summer intensive for students, coincided with the event, as well as a Teacher Training Program led by Roni Mahler.
As chair, Villella endorsed changes in the competition’s contemporary component. While dancers have always brought individual contemporary routines (often an uneven display of choreographic skill), this year they were also required to learn set pieces by Trey McIntyre and Matthew Neenan for the competition’s second round.
In the end, dancers from South Korea dominated the awards. However, two Americans in the junior division took top prizes. Gisele Bethea, 15, from the Master Ballet Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, won the gold medal, and a full scholarship to the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and an open invitation to join the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company. Mackenzie Richter, a 16-year-old from the International City School of Ballet in Smyrna, Georgia, won the silver medal and a contract with Houston Ballet II.
Photos by Richard Finkelstein, courtesy of USA IBC