by Carlos Stafford

The judges were ready, the dancers came with energy to burn, and after four days of intense competition the cream rose to the top. By any estimation, the field of dancers who gathered at Symphony Space gave it their all, performed under challenging circumstances and prevailed. All did well, some only slightly better than others, while others set themselves far apart. Valentina Kozlova’s Ballet Competition 2017 came to a joyous close.

When it was over, everyone got to celebrate in a cathartic Gala Performance honoring dance legend Arthur Mitchell, former principal dancer in Balanchine Era NYCB, and founder of Dance Theatre of Harlem. He was graciously introduced in absentia by Valentina Kozlova, who spoke on his accomplishments, and of Balanchine’s deep respect and admiration.

Many believe ballet competitions should be avoided since ballet is an art form and not gymnastics, for instance, where numbers are totaled for completing required elements. For sure, both forms display aesthetics, control, and strength, but ballet goes far beyond and communicates a totality of beauty of mind, body, and spirit, therefore subjective in nature, and obviously difficult to objectively quantify.

So, judging a dance competition is a daunting task, and deep knowledge and intuition of the art is required. However, as I looked around at the dance luminaries assembled lending their imprimaturs as judges, I was assured the event was bound to be in good hands. As chairman Andris Liepa, former Bolshoi star and ABT principal, and son of Maris Liepa who brought Spartacus to the the world long ago, and was lucky enough to catch in amazement years ago; to Nina Ananiashvilli, the great Georgian artist who originally wowed audiences in New York as a young girl in Don Quixote, and retired years later after a glorious international career with ABT, were present; Ivan Cavallari, Artistic Director of Les Grands Ballet Canadiens, Sergei Soloviev, Teacher, Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et Danse de Paris, and Nicolai Tsiskaridze, Rector of the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Saint Petersburg (absent, but scheduled) to name a few of the 15 to 20 notables.

For the competitive dancer, the challenge is to deliver an impeccable, if not flawless, performance under difficult conditions. Maintaining an concentrated inner state within a role while having to dance a brief variation of a larger narrative —Giselle, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, for example–and add the required panache is asking a lot. Technique, musicality, and interpretation are some of the controllable factors, but then there are other more subtle aspects not easily defined: charisma, character, presence, engagement; some of the things that cannot be taught, but are conveyed across the footlights, nonetheless. Not easy.

All this being said, in ballet, where it is sometimes difficult to advance or display one’s ability or potential, where many are called but few are chosen, these events loom large, and the eyes determining the outcomes can set careers in motion. At the end, medals, scholarships, company contracts, and material prizes were generously awarded. Most importantly, dancers were seen by the right people, and got the valuable experience of performing in the spotlight where the spinning wheel of fortune could point to greater opportunities.

I only saw the senior division compete from opening rounds to the final rounds in both ballet and contemporary. Standouts as a group was South Korea. Jinsol Eum (gold) Yu Jeong Choi (gold), Suhwan Kim, and Eunhye Lee were all great to watch and came well prepared, richly costumed, both elegant and powerful.

Two male dancers from Kazakhstan impressed everyone as well, with Bakhtiyar Adamzhan from Astana winning the Grand Prix with his explosive and clean technique, and was invited to perform in the planned homage to Rudolf Nureyev next year in Moscow– a great honor indeed. We wish him well. Also his compatriot, Serik Nakyspekov delighted with a variation from La Sylphide and won bronze in the men’s division.

Italy, Brazil, and the USA had many fine entrants and prize winners as well. Christian Pforr danced a great Albrecht from Giselle, and is a striking figure on stage. He should go far. Marcos Silva from Brazil caught my eye with his fine noble bearing and his clean, fiery performance of Don Q, and general consistency throughout the week, and a pleasure to watch; he was awarded bronze. Koyo Yanagishima from the USA, who had heart stopping leaps and blazing speed in abundance, took gold along with Adamzhan. Francesca Loi of Italy won bronze.

One dancer who especially stood out with extra elegance and refined lightness was Camila Rodrigues, USA. Musical, quick, and dancing with a knowing, controlled confidence in pieces from Flames of Paris, Napoli, La Bayadère, to a contemporary dance, Deep Mirror, she conveyed a natural ease and understanding that projected substance, beauty, and intelligence. She displayed a wide range of abilities and potential that won her the prize of “Best Contemporary Interpretation,” as well as company contract to Columbia Classical Ballet, and a scholarship to Tulsa Ballet.

Lastly, one of the many highlights of the competition was the beautiful and delightful pas de deux at the Gala performed by Yu Jeong Choi and Jun Kyoung Kim from South Korea–magical partnering in a flawless, lyrical Talisman. It was a wonderful finish to a success filled competition.

For me, in classical ballet, metaphorically speaking, man is a strong pine tree in the mountains, tall, ascending, firmly rooted looking at the stars, while woman is a new flower on the hillside, full of color, light, truth and beauty, ascending as well. Dance is not just leaping and turning and creating fireworks and dazzle. It must offer content, feeling, wisdom, and perhaps transcendence–surely it is not only visual. This is what the audience wants, to simply to partake vicariously, to be transported to somewhere beautifully grand and metaphysical in our hearts and minds. At this competition, many of these rare moments were achieved, and point to greater things in the future.