Photo: Talented dancers from 9 to 19 years old passe, plie and pirouette at the Irving Arts Center for a chance to advance to a New York competition and a chance to earn scholarships to prestigious dance academies around the world. /Photos by John Starkey
Some of the best up-and-coming classical ballet and contemporary dancers in the world competed in the Youth America Grand Prix held in the Irving Arts Center Feb. 23 through 26. 480 students competed to earn one of 15 coveted positions to advance to a New York competition as well as a chance to earn scholarships to the best dance schools in the world.
The Irving-hosted competition was one of 21 held throughout the United States. This year, Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) competitions are also being held in Japan, Australia, South Korea, Europe, Paris and Brazil.
“Internationally we are the largest competition for ballet students nine years old through 19,” Alexei Moskalenko, the YAGP’s assistant artistic director and former Bolshoi ballet dancer, said. “Our biggest attraction for students is that we connect them to other schools around the world and they get scholarships. Some students in the middle of Texas can get scholarships to the best school in the world, for example the Royal Ballet School in London, England. Judges can see the student and invite him or her to London to the Royal Ballet.
“After the regionals, the best of the best of the students will go to New York, and in Europe, we have finals. We have about 40 judges who come from all over the world from the best schools to judge these kids. If the judges like somebody, they offer them scholarships. That is a pretty big reward. Plus, kids connect to each other. They can also go to summer programs.
“A judge [in Irving] can go to a student and say I like you, so would you like to join our summer program, and students get scholarships right here. Some students don’t have to wait for New York. In New York there is a bigger scale of international coverage of schools.
“It takes a lot of commitment and passion for the art. In Russia we call ballet dancers artists, because dancers are associated with entertainment and artists are about creating art. The students have to be not just physically fit and working on technicalities, they also have to be artists from the heart. It’s a very competitive field. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not easy to get on top, so they worked very hard.”
Instructor Jacqueline Porter says the YAGP is considered to be the Olympics of ballet. Porter tirelessly wrangled excited dancers in the Arts Center lobby to ensure students were on stage at the correct times. She explained the Dallas Conservatory chooses students who they believe have a probable dance career ahead of them. By the end of the competition, the conservatory won one of two Outstanding School Awards.
“Having this competition every year is the thing that has set the bar for us each year,” Porter said. “Because we come and we see the best of the best here each year, it makes us so much more ambitious and so much more determined to become better than ever. The best word in the English language for these children is YAGP. It excites them so much, and me as a teacher, and all the coaches. We are energized just at the thought. It puts a zip in your step beginning back in June.
“Right now, here, today, Dallas is the largest competition they have ever had in YAGP history. The good schools that we are up against, the good dancers, good coaches, and good teachers from the other schools are who we aim to compete with and compete against. We do our very best for that.
“The students work with different choreographers that we bring in, so of course, we are trying to fulfill the choreographer’s vision too. We want to make sure that vision completely comes to life on stage. We’re trying to meet our own expectations. We’re trying to exceed what we think we’re going to see here.”
Simply dreaming about becoming a dancer is not enough to make a career as a dancer a reality.
“To become a professional ballet dancer, it takes exceptional training,” Porter said. “You can have a wonderful body and wonderful potential, but if you don’t have exceptional training you will never make it. You cannot make it on enthusiasm or dreams alone. You have to have the best teachers teaching you proper technique.
“Unfortunately, there is no regulation about how things are taught. In America, anybody can teach.
“The mother or father of a passionate child has to seek out the very best training, cross compare schools, and listen to what others say. Once that child is in a good school, stay there. Don’t hop schools. Stay with a good school. Then kill yourself every single day, six days a week. Don’t ever let the kids not go to class because they have too much homework or something like that. Every day, the discipline of dancing begins in the home. It’s the parents that actually help make the professional dancer.
“The parents are the ones getting the kids to class, making sure that they don’t skip and keeping them motivated when they’re tired. The parents do all the shuffling around to competitions and performances. Parents have to be supportive, teachers have to be great, and the kid has to love it. If the student doesn’t love it, they will never be a professional, because they will never get through the audition process. They have to love it, and they have to think that they’re good,” she said.
One of Porter’s students, Olivia Bell (12), wants a career in dance regardless of the style.
“I enjoy everything about dance,” Bell said. “If you have a bad day, you can come to dance and let it out and have a really good time. In my career, I hope to dance ballet, modern, probably as much dance as I can do all around. Even if it’s clogging, I would try new things. I would like to dance in New York at the New York City Ballet or the American Ballet Theater.”
Fellow Dallas Conservatory student Kali Kleiman (13) was named to the competition’s Top 12, winning second place in the Contemporary Dance Category.
“The YAGP is so exciting because they hand out so many scholarships,” Kali said. “It’s a really big deal, because all of the really big ballet companies come and the judges are from big ballet companies. You want to be seen by them to hopefully get in a company.
“Last year, I got a scholarship to go to the Houston Ballet for a week term in the summer. It was so much fun. I loved everything about it. I progressed a lot there.
“I’m going to the school of American Ballet in New York this summer. I got a full scholarship for tuition, and I got 50 percent for room and board.
“I want to be a principal dancer for the New York City ballet. I know it’s a big goal, but I hope to get there someday. It would be awesome,” she said.
Kali’s best friend, Madyson Grobe (11) was also named to the Top 12 and won the Hope Award in the Pre-Competitive Age Division.
“The YAGP is a really awesome experience for everybody even if you don’t end up getting a scholarship in the end or making the Top 12,” Madyson said. “It’s a really great experience just to get out on the stage. It’s really nice to have stage time, and get to meet new people I’ve never met before. It’s nice to get scholarships to go somewhere.
“Last year, I got a scholarship to the Rock School for Dance and Education, but I was not able to go.
“This summer I’m going to the School of American Ballet. I ended up getting a full scholarship. I’m really excited. It will be my first summer away from home.
“In future, I would like to be a principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, the same as Kali. After that, I want to travel around to different cities and do master classes,” Grobe said.
Dianne Crowley’s daughter, Lauren (13), competed in YAGP with Fishback Studio of the Dance from Albuquerque New Mexico.
“The competition is beautiful.” Dianne said. “The girls learn empowerment to take on stressful events. It teaches them to tackle goals and to compete and get in front of people and be confident. My daughter has been a dancer since she was three. She works hard.
“When I see her on stage, I get very nervous. You kind of live through them, and you don’t want them to fail, fall, trip or do their dance poorly. You are just nervous for them to do well.
“She has a lot of talent. We’re good to do whatever we can to help her become a professional dancer. She practices anywhere from 3 to 7 hours a day.
“It’s a lovely event. It’s our first time here. Next year we will come back, and we will know how to do it better. It’s just amazing. I’m glad we are here.”