September 2011 | Ballet Scene | Birth of a Competition

International ballet dancers take the stage in Boston

By Karen White

At the first-ever Boston International Ballet Competition, held May 12 to 16, dancers tackled classical variations with grace, beauty, and technical prowess, hitting gigantic double tours and spot-on fouetté combinations. By the time a South Korean couple flashed through a jaw-dropping Diana and Acteon pas de deux, it was clear that this inaugural competition—yet another entry in a growing industry—had managed to attract some top-drawer talent from around the globe.

South Korea’s Ji Young Chae and her partner Young Gyu Choi donated $2,000 of their gold-medalist winnings back to the BIBC to send a dancer to the 2011 Seoul International Dance Competition. (Photo by Brian Mengini)

And that’s just what BIBC founder Valentina Kozlova wanted. “It’s been an amazing three days of competition,” she said just before handing out medals and awards at the closing gala. “We were looking not for participants to compete against each other, but for an exchange of cultures, for unity, and for the discovery of talent.”

The gala drew an enthusiastically vocal audience, but a few days before, when the first competitors took to the tiny stage in John Hancock Hall, the theater had been painfully silent, with only a handful of coaches and moms separated by seas of empty seats, despite publicity in at least a dozen local papers and on news websites. But in an orchestra row filled with support staffers and organizers sat seven judges—with names like Verdy, Liepa, and Webre, some of the biggest names in the ballet world—so it was understandable that some competitors’ nerves were on display, from shaking hands to girls falling off pointe, from missteps to slipped lifts.

Eighty-five dancers from 20 countries traveled to Boston for the competition, where dreary skies greeted them and cold spring rains pelted them as they trekked between the competition hall and the nearby Boston Ballet studios, where rehearsals and class were held.

Junior and senior division dancers faced three rounds of competition. In the first, they presented their choice of two variations or one pas de deux selected from a very short list of classics such as Paquita or Le Corsaire provided by the BIBC. The second round focused on contemporary solo pieces—Christina’s World, choreographed by Margo Sappington, for the females, and an excerpt from As Above So Below, choreographed by Edwaard Liang, for the males. The dancers learned them in advance of the competition via a website video. Each round cut their numbers by 50 percent, leaving a select few to show their final prepared piece in the third round.

Only two rounds were held for the small student division of 13- and 14-year-olds (10 girls and one boy). And while the students vied for first-, second-, or third-place certificates only, bigger prizes were on the line for the older dancers, from cash awards of up to $9,000 to contracts with studio companies, summer intensive scholarships, and opportunities to perform in upcoming international galas.

On the final day, after the decisions had all been made and guest dancers, such as Alexandra Jacob and Samuel Wilson of the Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble, rehearsed their pieces for the evening’s gala, Kozlova was beaming. “It went better than I expected,” she said. “The dancers were of exceptional quality. Everything ran so smoothly. And all the judges want to come back—they had a blast.”

Her one disappointment was the low attendance. “I don’t know why,” she said, adding that she had particularly hoped to see Boston Ballet School students in the audience. “I came here thinking that people in Boston love dance. I have a sense that it’s the first year. Hopefully as we educate the audience as to what this is, they will come.”

A former Bolshoi and New York City Ballet principal dancer with her own dance conservatory in New York City, Kozlova said she first thought of creating a competition about eight years ago. She says she was “upset with some rules and regulations” at other competitions where she was judging, and other teachers had suggested that she create her own. Since she had just opened her conservatory, she thought it would be too much to handle. “But when the seed is planted, it stays in the back of your mind,” she said. “I felt that one day I was going to do it.”

And the field is crowded. Olga Smoak of Panama, head of the BIBC artistic advisory board and president of the New Orleans International Ballet Competition, said she remembers when there were only four international ballet competitions.

Kozlova, though, had good feelings from the beginning. “When I first started to call or email people worldwide, they all responded immediately and were extremely positive. It showed me that I was doing the right thing,” she said. “I didn’t have to twist arms at all.”

Her involvement, in turn, was a draw for coaches such as Jacqueline Akhmedova, a former Bolshoi dancer and director of Akhmedova Ballet Academy in Silver Spring, Maryland, who brought a 16-year-old student, Deanna Pearson. “I have great respect for Valerie and I think this will be run professionally, and that’s always good,” Akhmedova said. “And the competition caught my attention because it is a new one.”

Pearson, one of 23 junior division dancers, has a training regimen that includes three hours of private coaching with Akhmedova each morning and another three hours of class each afternoon. She said entering competitions is one of the best things a dancer can do to prepare for a professional career. (She competed the previous year at Tanzolymp in Berlin.) “It’s about bringing every step you’ve learned to these two minutes of time, and added to that you have the competition, the lights, everything that makes you nervous, and you have to work past that,” said Pearson.

Boston was to be the first competition for Erika Delponte, a native of Italy. A first-year apprentice with Semperoper Ballett in Dresden, Delponte represented Germany in the senior division. “I’m excited to dance, but more so to experience the scene, to see how other people work, and to perform,” she said. “I don’t look for a prize, but if you can talk with an important director, that’s good.”

And important directors were everywhere. Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet and its school, served as judging panel president. The judges included Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre; former Paris Opera and Boston Ballet artistic director Violette Verdy; Andris Liepa of Russia, director and producer of The Russian Seasons–21st Century project; Oleksi Bessmertni, founder and director of Germany’s International Dance Festival Tanzolymp; Hae Shik Kim, founding dean of Korean National University of the Arts, School of Dance, and a former prima ballerina with Korean National Ballet Company; and Maria Luisa Noronha, founder of Ballet do Rio de Janeiro and Ballet Dalal Achcar School.

 “I would like the dancers to understand that it’s not about the medals; it’s about the exchange of cultures, because the world is big and small at the same time, and the unity is the wonderful world of ballet.” —BIBC founder Valentina Kozlova

Working double duty was BIBC coordinator Margo Sappington, who had choreographed the contemporary piece performed by female dancers in round 2 and who, on the afternoon of the gala, set the lighting as the gala’s guest dancers rehearsed. In addition to the DTH dancers, the guests included Jennie Somogyi and Charles Askegard of New York City Ballet, Joseph Gatti and Whitney Jensen of Boston Ballet, and two students of Kozlova’s.

Sappington, a friend of Kozlova’s for 20 years, said the two would often discuss “things we found annoying about competitions, and what we would do differently.” One constant source of irritation was poor scheduling, which led to dancers bickering over rehearsal time, uncertainty about where to be when, or events that ran late.

“If people get antsy and upset it’s like a fungus, and it spreads,” Sappington said. “Our main objective was to have a calm, supportive atmosphere.”

That’s exactly what it was, said senior division dancer Brooklyn Mack, 24 at the time of the competition. “It was friendly and relaxed and amiable between dancers. People were helping each other out with makeup and sharing costumes.”

A dancer with The Washington Ballet, Mack finds competing very different from company life. “You set a goal to work toward, and your preparation for competition is meticulous. A lot of growth can come out of something like this, if you get used to it and can use it in your training,” he said.

Growth, and other good things as well. Mack tied with Rodrigo Almarales of Cuba for the bronze medal, but he seemed dumbstruck when Liepa presented him with an outstanding artistry award named for his father, Bolshoi legend Maris Liepa. The award came with an offer to dance alongside Bolshoi and Maryinsky stars at a gala next year in Moscow. As he received the award, Mack stood openmouthed, one hand over his heart.

But more good things awaited Mack. After the competition, a website announcement said that gold medalists Young Gyu Choi and Ji Young Chae of South Korea had donated $2,000 of their winnings back to the BIBC to send a dancer to the 2011 Seoul International Dance Competition. “BIBC extends this very special award of generosity and kindness from a dancer to another dancer to: Brooklyn Mack, USA.”

This sharing of dance across borders was another goal of Kozlova’s. During preparations for the BIBC she spoke of traveling as a young dancer to galas and events around the world. Wherever she was, she met the same group of select dancers, who were friends even though they hailed from different parts of the world. She wanted to bring that same feeling to her competition.

“I would like the dancers to understand that it’s not about the medals; it’s about the exchange of cultures, because the world is big and small at the same time, and the unity is the wonderful world of ballet,” she said.

 Indiana resident Lisa Hiday, who had watched the entire competition with her daughter, Demitra Bereveskos, agreed. “I was impressed with the world scope of the competition,” Hiday said. “There was a male from South Africa, dancers from Belarus—really neat places.”

Too young to compete, Demitra, only 12, had been invited by her coach, Kozlova, to lead off the BIBC gala performance. The miniature girl in a powder-blue tutu would generate loud “bravos” for her variation from Giselle, perfected during one of her twice-monthly trips to Kozlova’s New York studio.

Kozlova was obviously proud of her student. “She looks like 5 but dances like 16,” she whispered. “She’s the future.”

The idea of not only finding but nurturing talent is why she plans on ignoring comments from some of the judges to “not bother” with the sparsely attended student division. “But I would like to be bothered by it, and expand it,” she said. “When you start [competing] at age 13, 14, when you come to 16, you are so advanced.”

Kozlova is already looking ahead to next year. Just days after the competition ended, she announced the dates for the 2012 event.

“Some directors of companies here, now that they have seen what this is, said they will bring their dancers next year,” Kozlova said. “It was so important to me to bring cultures together for a celebration of ballet, and that is what we had—a celebration of ballet.”