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Competitions: Good or Bad?

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#1 Natalia


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Posted 06 April 1999 - 01:25 PM

Earlier threads have touched on the issue of ballet competitions and whether or not there is merit in them. I've attended a number of them in Russia (Vaganova Prix, La Maya, Moscow IBC) plus the one in USA/Jackson last year. I have mixed opinions about them...but would honestly like to first hear what you have to say.

To get the ball rolling on this discussion, I will point out an interesting thing that I noticed in Russian playbills/souvenir programmes, which may shed light on the importance of competitions in the former Soviet Union. In Russia (& other NIS countries) it is a tremendous honor to be awarded a medal in an international ballet competition. To this day, EVERY Russian dancer who has been awarded any sort of a medal in any of the "IBC" series of competitions (Paris, Jackson, Varna, Moscow) or in the more prestigeous junior-level events (Lausanne, Vaganova Prix) has this fact acknowledged in the programmes (playbills). Whether it be the Bolshoi, Kirov, Maly, Stanislavsky, Perm, or Novosibirsk theaters--the cast lists in the playbills of those theaters will acknowledge a dancer who has won a medal by printing, beside his/her name "Laureate of International Ballet Competition." The names of the specific competitions are not cited--only the fact that that dancer has won a medal. And until his or her retirement from the stage, that designation will always be with him or her, while s/he continues to perform in Russia. [This is similar to the recurring use of honorary titles granted to dancers by the regional & national government, e.g., "Honored Artist of Russia."]

Can any of you imagine, say, the ABT playbills citing next to Paloma Herrera's name that she is a laureate of a competition?

So...what do you think of ballet competitions of the IBC or Prix de Lausanne sort?

[This message has been edited by Jeannie (edited April 06, 1999).]

#2 Alexandra


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Posted 06 April 1999 - 06:15 PM

My views will be so predictable that I refuse to post them until at least three other people have answered!


#3 Steve Keeley

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Posted 06 April 1999 - 09:08 PM

I've never seen a ballet competition, and have no interest in doing so. Given the lopsided supply/demand ratio for jobs, the dancers that make it into a major company are the winners of the only competition I think matters.


#4 Victoria Leigh

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Posted 06 April 1999 - 11:18 PM

I'm afraid that the only thing good that I can think of to say about competitions is that maybe they can help a dancer get a contract. Perhaps they can also help a dancer who is already with a company to get a better contract or negotiate for better roles. But then, I don't think that a better contract or better roles should be based on one's ability to do tricks.

I really find "ballet" and "competition" to be antithetical. They are just not what the art is about, in my opinion. The dancers perform selected solos and pas de deux in which they have been extremely well coached and rehearsed for a long time, probably at great expense and to the exclusion of almost everything else. These pieces include a great number of "tricks", and these seem to be the most important thing in the competition. If they pull off all the tricks and also dance with a huge amount of flare and confidence, not to mention "sell", they should have a good shot at a medal. So, they have spent all the money with the best coaches they can find, worked themselves to death for countless hours over many months, and what do they have? What have they learned about the art of ballet? What have they learned about doing a role? What have they learned about working in a company, especially working in a corps de ballet, which is where most of them should be starting out?

Most of these dancers are very young, many not yet in a company, and here they are becoming "stars" before they have become dancers. I may be old fashioned, but I believe there is a great deal of validity in the process of moving up through the ranks. I have never believed that being a child prodigy is a particularly good thing, and I don't think becoming a medal-winning star has much to do with becoming an artist.

I have less difficulty with already established dancers doing competitions, although I can't really figure out why they would want to do them, except perhaps for the prize money that some offer. I guess they could also get guest performing work from them, which also leads to more money, and since dancers don't make much money, this would be a valid reason Posted Image

Some competitions, like the Prix de Lausanne, for instance, do offer scholarships for young dancers to continue their training in the best schools. This would certainly be an advantage for many students.

I just don't like to see ballet placed in the same kind of arena as skating or beauty pagaents. (I have nothing against either of the above, but they have their place and ballet is in a different place.)

Sometimes I feel that the competitions are more about teachers/coaches/choreographers showing off their brillance with exceptionally talented dancers. Those of us who teach have probably all had at least one or two exceptional talents to work with in our careers, and it would be very tempting to take that child to a big competition and show them off. I suppose there are some circumstances where this is okay, and in the best interest of the child, but I know I would think a very long time about it before entering into it.

#5 Ed Waffle

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Posted 06 April 1999 - 11:26 PM

In the March "Dance Magazine", Jenny J. Veldhuis writes regarding competition winners: "It is common for these young virtuousos to have no idea what ballet their variation comes from, having never seen it or the ballet danced live." They often don't know who the original choreograher was, at what period the ballet was created, or who its original performers were."

The situation among vocal contest winners in opera is not quite the same--not necessarily better, but different. However, vocal competitions are known to be auditions as much as contests, especially in the United States. Conductors, music directors, general directors and other career makers are often in attendance and just as often ignore the decisions of the judges when it comes to filling roles.

It seems to make a LOT more sense to have competitions for opera singers than ballet dancers, though. In this country, just about every singer is a free-lance artist. She will be paid by the performance and is not a permanent member of a company--different in Europe, of couse. In regional opera, competition for roles is constant and fierce. It is not unusual for a singer who has placed well in a contest and who has a Ph.D. in vocal music to be competing with others who have similar credentials for an apprenticeship with a small company.

As Steve mentions, the real winners are the dancers who make it into companies--and while winning a contest may be a factor in determining who is promoted within a company (I have NO IDEA if this is correct), it does not seem it would be a very important factor.

#6 cargill


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Posted 07 April 1999 - 08:19 AM

I suppose this is a typical conservative, knee-jerk reaction reaction, but I do not think art has anything to do with winning and losing competitions. Sometimes, of course, competiton winners are great artists--van Hamel, for instance, but in some cases (like Bujones) it seems that winning can hurt a dancer by making him (or her) feel like they should be a star. Once a dancer is on stage in a real ballet, it is utterly immaterial what sort of medals they have won, unless, like some seem to try to do, they keep wearing them throughout the ballet.

#7 Natalia


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Posted 07 April 1999 - 10:00 AM

Thanks for all of the good answers...keep 'em coming.

I pretty much agree with everyone so far. Everything that has been stated thus far is very true for dancers outside what I still call "The Soviet Orbit." However, winning a medal at a major ballet competition can and WILL seal the fate of a dancer in any of the former Soviet Union countries, as well as countries that at present continue as socialist-communist regimes, e.g., People's Republic of China and Cuba. The sealing of one's fate in those countries can be fabulous or dreadful: a medal of any color will almost assure one of soloist-level tenure at his/her company (bypassing the corps); a defeat (no award) is usually the death-knell ensuring 20 years in the corps, if lucky.

One lovely blonde Kirov dancer who, I thought, did a super job dancing the "Flower Festival pdd" at the 1995 Vaganova Prix, made the final round but failed to medal. The only solo that she has danced at the Kirov in the past 4 years is one of the Sleeping Beauty fairies. On the other hand, this girl's male partner in "Flower Festival" DID earn a prize & he immediately was assigned Peasant PDD (Giselle), Swan Lake Jester & other plum demi-caractere roles in his first year as a professional. Anyway, you get my point.

I believe that competitions can have a major influence on one's career in certain countries and societies in which competing and winning at ANYTHING--be it ballet or skating or chess--is EVERYTHING. Competitors from Russia, China & Cuba have "the eye of the tiger...spare no-prisoners" mentality when they go up against Westerners. I'm not saying that this is good..it's just a reality.

#8 Natalia


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Posted 07 April 1999 - 10:13 AM

One more thing on the previous post, which will "add fuel to the anti-competition fire":

The young blonde Kirov corps dancer about whom I wrote above does not have a classically "beautiful" face in the Kirov sense...she has a bit of a cleft chin and some tooth-verbite. Otherwise, she is picture perfect in figure, musculature, heigth, lovely expressive blue eyes,pretty hair, long swan neck, etc., and BOY could she dance. She really brought the sunny Bournonville choreography to life! I found it rather telling that, when I started to praise the dancer to my audience-neighbor, a middle-aged Russian woman (scientist, not a ballet professional) who has attended numerous competitions, she told me: "She cannot win because she is not a beauty." And who won? The most beautiful face--by Russian standards--among the competitors: Maya Dumchenko, who I had rated as perhaps the 5th-best dancer among the girls. Interesting?

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Posted 07 April 1999 - 09:56 PM

Victoria expressed exactly what i think about competitions, and probably said it more eloquently than i could have. So here's to support the "Less favorable" opinion of competitions...(to put it mildly)*S*

#10 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 April 1999 - 11:58 PM

I land pretty squarely in the anti-competition camp, but I will say, having seen the Bruhn Competition in Canada, that as competitions go, it's not a pernicious one - the dancers are already in companies, and are being judged by the artistic directors of the participating companies (each refraining from judging his or her own contestants) It seemed less like a competition and more like a way to begin to exhibit dancers the directors hoped to promote.

#11 Guest_Lugo_*

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Posted 09 April 1999 - 05:28 AM

Hi again, i have been quite upset with the current trend in competitions for the kids who are not yet at a professional level. I posed this question to another board that seems to have many "teachers" who are extrememly focused on the competition scene.
I expressed my concerns on that board, but thought you all might have some ideas as to why this is so prevalent. So, here is the section of my questions regarding "the competition dilemna":

"I would like to know why everyone seems to be into these competitions? (I understand the ones for those ready to embark on a professional career, or advance a career further. These types of "non-profits" can sky rocket a career, get them offers to companies ,up them from a corps to soloist, or soloist to principal etc.) But how are "these others" affecting the kids ideas about Ballet or Dance in general? It can't all be about self esteem, because the kids i hear from often get extremely discouraged and have more self doubt than before entering the competition world, (except for the medal winners, who are not necessarily the best dancers). Ballet is not a competition, it is an Art! - Why are so many people soooo into this "stuff"? I am beginning to think that we are losing our Future Artists Ballerinas/ Danseurs, Coreographers Teachers, Balletomanes, and Critics, to a Sports enthusiastic, Gold medal, Athletic Arena Mentality, and Performance Standards that are like the ice rink.

Is this what we want? Is this what ballet/ dance is going to become? Like "Stars of the Bolshoi", who look like a "Circus", no true full length or choreographic program, just a bunch of mini pas de deux works and solos, that you would see in a competition. Lots of tricks, Lots of fake smiles, and playing to the audience. Rather than creating a work of Art, to make one cry, laugh, think, or contemplate life, or even just feel and see music with dance as a beautiful interpretive expression. I felt sorry for every one of them. They looked like performing animals, not Artists (yet they were trained as artists and they have relegated themselves to this, or has this prevalent mentality shown us what Ballet is being relagated to in the future!). I am extremely upset by what i see happening."

Ok, i am so gald to see similar feelings about competitions being expressed here.

Much Aloha

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Posted 01 May 1999 - 12:36 PM

AMEN and AMEN I just want to teach my students to love and appreciate the art and to do their very best, no matter their limitations. the only competition I want to see is each of my dancers competeing with themselves to improve their technique, their awareness,their passion for the dance. Only a very few who pass thru my teaching hands will ever be a "star" for the world but we need to also turn out our future in the way of supporters,and what better way than with some dance training behind them and an appreciation for the hard work and dedication that goes with it. If you want to strut go to broadway!!! And I love broadway but there is no place in my teaching or training ,or schedule to spend time teaching a single piece for a competition. Dance is so much deeper than that. Posted Image

#13 Guest_shag_*

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Posted 31 May 1999 - 09:16 PM

While I agree with the "knee jerk" logic, art is so many things to so many people, competitions cannot be so easily dismissed.

Let me get my biases out front. I am not a dancer, I am an attorney (with poor typing skills so please forgive mistakes). My wife is a dancer for a "newer" company, two years old and I am on the Board of Directors. She is not a great audition dancer and has had trouble getting AD to notice her in auditions. The point is that competitions are probably not for her because the vast magority of entries lack the depth that my wife excels at and choreoghers hone in on.

That being said, one of her Artistic Directors, Yanis Pikieris, was the first NON-RUSSIAN to ever win the Moscow Dance competition in the early 80s. Not only did it shake the foundation of the Russian dance establishment and obviously put Yanis on the map but Yanis wasn't just any dancer. He wasn't from GB, France, America, Japan, Canada or even Cuba. He was from Columbia! His presence in Venezuela and the hype that was generated changed how latin american viewed themselves.

This is but one example. Every good can be exploited and destorted. It is better to fix something that can achieve such things rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater.


#14 dirac


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Posted 01 June 1999 - 01:25 AM

I think that competitions have their place as long as they're not the lone factor in a dancer's progress, and the consensus seems to be that they are not. Also, they sometimes do reward outstanding artists -- Makarova and Nadezhda Pavlova won gold medals, if memory serves. If they help young dancers gain exposure and stage experience, that's all to the good. I agree, however, that in theory artistry and competition are fundamentally opposed. I've been reading John Curry's autobiography, and one thing he makes clear is that he feels his real work began after his competitive career was over -- he had to win the medals in order to do the work he wanted to do. He was a skater and not a dancer, but much of what he says about having to please the judges in competitions is interesting and depressing to read.

#15 janerobins


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Posted 06 June 1999 - 08:18 AM

OK, l have seen one ballet competition. I put my daughter in it because l thought she would gain some performance experience. After seeing it however, and changing schools since, l have changed my mind about them. It is not worth hanging around all day for. I am not against comps, as l do ballroom. It is just that these comps (here in Australia) don't seem as good as the Dancesport ones, of which l have seen a few. I guess comparison is the best way to treat an issue as this.

In Dancesport, it is emphasized as a sport. Also, the strict rules and the endless grades the kids, and adults, have to work through mean that only the best usually make it to open company, at least in the amateur ranks. (they do not have a similar system in the pro. ones). This often means that an amateur who is in open class is often as good as a pro. A world class one can easily make it into the finals of a pro. comp.

Back to the ballet. Does such a system exist, like the working through a number of grades? In fact, the higher the grade, the more one has to win to elevate to the next one. Also, l do not think that dancing to the same music all the time actually shows how much the dancer can adjust their choreography to the music that is given. Once again, in Dancesport, everyone dances to the same music. It is better that way, no? I don't see that happening in ballet, Jazz or tap comps.

I think that young dancers need to be taught to be performers and artists first. The rewards come after many years of hard work, and the recognition. This is an indication of the dancers talent and dedication, not the medal, although a young dancer needs some form of encouragement. Perhaps what is needed is a new set of rules for comps.

Jane Rob

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