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Ballet Scene | Opening Eyes, Ears, and Minds

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Every four years, the USA International Ballet Competition offers two weeks of process and performances that can last a lifetime

By Sherry Lucas

At the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, “the process is the prize,” says Bruce Marks, the competition’s international jury chairman.

Students in the IBC Dance School take class each day, then head to the competition performances for a nightly reminder of what they’re all striving toward. (Photo by Richard Finkelstein)

At the companion USA IBC Dance School, watching the performances by world-class competitors is the prize.

The prestigious quadrennial competition that turns Mississippi’s capital city into “dance central” also reaches 250-plus dance students with the sort of living, breathing inspiration that can’t be taught. It’s art that must be experienced.

Dance School, Jackson style
The two-week IBC Dance School gives intermediate and advanced dance students ages 12 and older the chance to study with a variety of leading teachers. But it also dangles that carrot of the competitors—about 100 of the world’s best young ballet dancers, whose artistic showdowns onstage are a nightly reminder of what they’re all striving toward each day.

“That adds a lot of richness to the experience,” says Dance School administrator Krista Bower, who owns Yazoo City School of Dance, performs with Front Porch Dance, and teaches dance at Jackson’s Belhaven University. Several summer intensives offer dance classes with rotating instructors, “but to be able to then have a theatergoing experience every day for two weeks is huge,” Bower says.

“Unbelievable,” Emily Scott, 14, a student at Dancecentre South near Atlanta, says of the competitors. “These people—I’m almost their age, and they’re just amazing.”

“I learn how far I can go if I train hard in ballet, and stick with it,” says Julian Sanz, 17, a dancer with Long Beach Ballet and one of 18 male students at the IBC Dance School. “It inspires my work. It tells me, no way in heck am I going to get as close to that,” he adds with a rueful laugh.

Sarah Smith, 18, who’s about to join Nashville Ballet 2, recalls clustering around YouTube to watch famous ballerinas during downtime at other summer intensives. “Here, it’s like you’re watching a live YouTube performance. Everyone’s really looking forward to taking class the next day so you can be like the competitors.”

Inspiring Performances: part of the package
USA IBC competitors perform classical variations in the initial elimination round, contemporary selections in the semifinals, and both in the final competition round. Performances by Philadanco and Regional Dance America are also part of the experience.

“There’s a strong connection between what [students are] learning in class and what they’re seeing at night,” says David Keary, Ballet Mississippi’s artistic director and a Dance School faculty member. “It’s such a visual art. One of the things I try to tell kids all the time is that they’ve got to see other companies. They need to be opening their eyes and minds and ears to what this art is. Otherwise, they’ll never have a mental picture of it. And I think that’s the brilliant part of this program.”

Living and learning together
Of the school’s 258 students, 217 are housed at the International Village at Belhaven University, along with the USA IBC competitors, coaches, teachers, and guests. They’re grouped by age in the dormitory halls and by ability for the daily classes. Eleven counselors supervise the female students; one male counselor oversees male students in a separate dormitory.

At a placement audition class, the Dance School faculty determines the level of instruction, dividing students into classes among seven studios at two sites a short bus ride away.

The school curriculum includes ballet technique, pointe, variations, partnering, jazz, modern, contemporary, and character. The faculty of company directors and renowned teachers included, for ballet: Donna Delsini, School of Nashville Ballet; Arleen Sugano, Ballet Arkansas; David Keary, Ballet Mississippi; Daniil Gaifullin and his wife, Stephanie Murrish-Gaifullin, Tulsa Ballet SemGroup Center for Dance Education; Rhodie Jorgenson, Maryland Youth Ballet; and Tatiana Tchernova, Canada’s National Ballet School. Jazz instructors were Marcus R. Alford, Dancecentre South co-owner/director, and Diana Law, a 20-year teacher at Tri-Cities Academy of Ballet and Music. Teaching modern and contemporary/modern, respectively, were Emily Yewell Volin, Brenau University’s Department of Dance, and Kris Cangelosi, with the Baton Rouge–based Cangelosi Dance Project.

The 11 faculty members rotate among all classes and levels, so all the students from 23 states, plus Canada and Panama, have the opportunity to work with every instructor. That’s key, the students say. Different teachers use different analogies and ways of explaining things. All of a sudden, something clicks.

Teacher training
That’s a lesson absorbed, too, by 22 participants in the Teachers Workshop, also held concurrently with the USA IBC. Dance teachers meet weekday mornings during the IBC with instructor Peff Modelski, master teacher of classical ballet and a guild-certified Feldenkrais practitioner, providing additional knowledge of how body and mind work to learn, memorize, and produce movement.

“As a teacher, you try to think of lots of different ways to explain things. You know one way doesn’t hit everybody,” says Karen Edwards, owner of The Dancer’s Studio in Raleigh, North Carolina. “She really cares about giving us information that’s useful to us in our daily lives as teachers.”

“On a daily basis, you can tell that it inspires [the students’] work in class, especially for kids from smaller studios; they don’t have those older students that they’re aspiring to look like all the time.” —counselor Leah Martin

Details of body placement, structural placement, and body mechanics are among the things Edwards will take home from the workshop—details that also helped her eliminate the limp she’d walked with since knee replacement. “That’s my personal gift.”

“All of us are very focused on the art of classical ballet and holding onto that tradition,” says workshop participant Carol Anglin, owner of Carol Anglin Dancenter in Shreveport and artistic director of Louisiana Dance Theatre.

Anglin finds affirmation in the similar struggles of fellow teachers: maintaining standards and respect for the art form and training discipline in an increasingly commercial world. “It’s wonderful and refreshing that other teachers also have the same high standards—pink tights, hair in a bun, respect in the classroom,” she says. “You have to have discipline. If you do not have discipline, you can’t do the training to cultivate young artists. You see the results in the students who come to the competition. They didn’t take the easy way out.”

Getting some perspective
Five bodies are sacked out poolside, lined up like baguettes in a bin. The dance students snooze as a huge fan drowns out the squeals of some 200 teenage peers splashing in the Olympic-sized pool. The fan and the fun may also be drowning out thoughts of combinations, corrections, and countless Paquita and Don Quixote variations from week one of the Dance School.

The pool party affords rare downtime for students who are on task in three hour-and-a-half classes weekdays, then off to the competition performances each night.

Those performances bring Dance School instruction home to roost. “One cool thing Rhodie Jorgenson would say is ‘Think about your favorite competitor,’ ” says Louisa Chapman, 19, of Atlanta, Georgia, who’s joining Nashville Ballet 2. “ ‘Why is that one your favorite? Really think about it.’ She’d challenge you to incorporate that into your own dancing. It wasn’t just the variation or series of steps. It was dancing and it was beautiful.”

“All the dancers have beautiful bodies and outstanding technique. And we all strive to have good bodies and technique,” Sarah Smith of Nashville Ballet 2 says. “But what stands out—you realize there’s more to dancing than technique and body. There’s also performance and the wow factor.”

Kathleen Hennessey, 18, a San Antonio Ballet apprentice, says, “They put their heart and soul into the dance.”

“On a daily basis, you can tell that it inspires [the students’] work in class, especially for kids from smaller studios; they don’t have those older students that they’re aspiring to look like all the time,” says Dance School counselor Leah Martin, who attended the IBC school in 2006. “The teachers use the competitors as reference points sometimes, like, ‘Did you see how they did that the other night? They only do that because you’re doing this.’

“You’re taking the best of the best, and you’re watching them and then you’re walking around with them later that day,” Martin says. “It’s this concentrated dose of greatness versus a whole ballet with just a little bit.”

Watching world-class ballet develops an eye for the art and is a sobering reminder of the hard work it requires. “It’s incredible, what they do. It’s very inspiring, but at the same time, it can be almost discouraging,” says Julian Sanz, one night on the plaza after watching competitors perform.

“Kind of motivating and also half-depressing,” adds Robin Self, 12, from Cary, North Carolina, and a dancer with Carolina Youth Ballet. “These are the best dancers in the world and they’re only a few years older than me.”

“It’s an awakening for them,” says Murrish-Gaifullin, a Dance School faculty member.

“You can talk to [students] forever about pictures and videos, but until they see dancers with that elevation, turn, and balance, and the different variations that are hundreds of years old—they see that firsthand and they understand,” Anglin says.

It’s not a show dance students sit through quietly or passively, to the audience’s delight. Thalia Mara Hall’s upper balcony, where Dance School students and whichever competitors aren’t on deck sit for performances, erupts into cheers and whistles for spectacular spins, leaps, lifts, and control from competitors onstage. They gasp at gaffes and whoop at moments of grace and bravado. It’s an exuberance found more often at a football game than a fine art performance, and it fills the theater with an energy that’s almost electric.

The high level of dance sets up a sort of celebrity status for competitors. Autograph collecting is a fun pursuit at intermission at the theater and on campus, and students occasionally get starstruck.

“It’s really cool when you see them outside of the dance atmosphere. It’s kind of exciting,” says Emily Scott. “The first day when we saw them, it was just like, ‘Oh, whatever.’ But once you see them dance and then you recognize them standing right in front of you, you’re just like, ‘Wow!’ These people are going to be famous one day and we’re standing right next to them!”

An ending and a beginning
In the air-conditioned oasis of the Belhaven University Center for the Arts on the school’s final Saturday morning, students applaud classmates and friends as scholarships, awards of recognition, and certificates are announced. The gathering resembles a graduation ceremony except for the sneakers, sandals, and lack of pomp and parents. The heat, the humidity, the inconvenience of a broken city water main that canceled classes for a day (“a welcome break,” some said) are almost behind them.

Scholarships from the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC; The Rock School; Alabama Ballet School; Joffrey South Workshop; School of Nashville Ballet; Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet; Tulsa Ballet Summer Intensive; American Ballet Theatre Summer Intensive in Austin; and Cangelosi Dance Project Summer Intensive provide tuition for 2011 summer study for winning students. Another will get free classes at Jazz on Tap at an Atlanta festival.

Carolyn Hoehner, 18, clutches her recognition—one of seven acknowledging outstanding jazz/contemporary modern dancers in the school—and remembers her first week’s struggle here, when she was overwhelmed, discouraged by how she stacked up, and sore from ballet class. Then, getting into jazz class. “That’s where I come alive. But being in ballet, it really is good food for your body,” she says.

“Now I’m committed. I want to [dance] forever,” says Hoehner, who dances with Anne Arundel Community College Dance Company. She values the networking opportunities, too, and interaction with professionals. “Competitors for the most part are so willing to pass on their experiences. It’s not just watching them dance, which is amazing. You get to know a little about their journey to get there. They were once students, too.”

Within an hour of the ceremony’s close, students gather at the Belhaven Pavilion for a two-minute dance party—a mini-performance wrapping classtime choreography to Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” around a bit of Flames of Paris. Young dancers, barefoot and in sneakers, gather on the plaza under a noontime sun and give the performance their all, twice, to tickled peers and passersby who watch from the shade on the sidelines.

Then, the students scatter, off to buses for a trip to the mall before the evening’s Awards Gala.

“It was just a little fun thing,” Luke Steely, 15, who studies at Dancecentre South, says before catching up with pals. Many have formed strong bonds that departing to different parts of the country won’t break. “We’re going to have a close-knit group on Facebook,” Steely predicts.

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October 2014
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