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Creating a "star"

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The following is a quote from a post by carbro on ABT Week 2 thread:

"Paloma has undergone an amazing transformation.

There has never been any doubt about her technical abilities. She has lovely line and a good ear. But this dancer has often failed to engage either dramatically or with her partner, to project personality or dramatic action, or to fill out adagio passages. Forget that old Paloma. The new Paloma brought to Nikiya a passion, a freshness, and moments of great beauty. Every act revealed a new aspect of a newly mature ballerina. This was the performance of her career."

And this quote is by Dale, on the Dropped Crotch thread on Issues:

"On the yagp web site, most of the pictures feature ultra-high extentions, over stretched jumps and contorted line, even in tutus. Probably not a good sign. "

I chose these two quotes because they illustrate points I have made a few times before about competitions and about companies who exploit rather than develop very young talent. In the case of Paloma Herrera, my feeling has always been that she was enormously talented, however they chose to make her a big star before she had the chance to develop any artistic maturity. She did too much too soon. Huge roles, huge pressure, and she has been through some very rough years where her performances were like a yo-yo. I am delighted to hear that she has matured and is now looking like she is living up to that wonderful potential, but it should not have taken all these years. It's a wonder to me that she survived.

Dales' quote says it all about competitions. The values they look for and applaud can, and probably will in many cases, IMO, develop the same kinds of problems. The focus is on how many, how high, how young, and promotes very young dancers doing the kinds of tricks and variations that were intended for mature dancers of ballerina and soloist status. Those who can do it, because of a lot of natural facility and endless hours of rehearsal on 3 variations, and of course solid technical training, are highly encouraged and win prizes. While some might be beautifully coached on the artistry and musicality, I find that most are not. While some in older teen groups are ready to work on these things, those in the younger teen groups are not. And, there is a risk with the younger ones especially, but with all to some extent, of overwork and injury. The kind of work needed for these events, if done during a growth spurt, could indeed lead to very serious injury.

Is it worth it? The child becomes a "star", the studio and teacher or coach receive recognition, and everyone is happy. Hmmm....

*Note: This thread was copied from the Teacher's forum. It still exists there for Teachers, but moved it here so that parents and anyone else could respond.

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Not worth it, in my opinion.

My daughter's studio recently hosted a master class with Maia Wilkins, who would be called the prima ballerina of the Joffrey if they employed such titles. I was delighted to hear that she spent a considerable time coaching the girls on presentation and épaulement. What a fabulous emphasis!

Artificial selection is an insidious thing. Because of it, we have roses that have no bouquet, and retrievers that don't retrieve. But they sure look beautiful! We humans tend to select for "flash"; the subtler beauties seem to be harder to appreciate and isolate. More's the pity.

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I have learned so much through this forum on what NOT to do with my young dancer. She has been told that she has a lot of potential. My first instinct is to push, but after reading about the benefits of patience, I have changed my original course of action and decided to sit back and allow her to be trained slowly. I am beginning to see that dancers, like fine wine, need time to mature so they can achieve thier full potential. Thanks to all of you. My daughter has already begun to see the benefits. She has stopped begging her teacher to wear her pointe shoes during techique and has kept the soft shoes on to really focus on her technique. Her dream is to become a dancer, not a child prodigy, who burns out by 18. :(

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Didn't think parents could post on the Teachers' board, but I see it's ok, so here I am, responding to the YAGP comments.

It might be helpful to know that this was the first year YAGP gave equal weight to artistry and technical scores.

Also, there were several instances in which "flashy" dancers lost out to more solid but less flashy technical ones.

Finally, anything one might say about YAGP must be said in light of the fact that the judges were teachers and ADs from ABT, BB, POB, the Royal Ballet, Cranko, San Francisco, Ailey, etc. and therefore represent not some isolated tendency of people involved in competitions, but decisions by a wide range of adults at the heart of the global ballet world.

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I was not speaking of YAGP and did not mention it in my post. The only mention at all was in the quote used in relation to the photos.

I am very glad to hear that some of the less "flashy" dancers won this year, and that there is more attention being paid to artistry. Perhaps some of the various rantings on this board have helped to bring about some of the changes, who knows! :(

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I don't think Dale's comments about the four pictures on the YAGP web site says it all about competitions. There are some very beautiful pictures of many of the dancers from this years YAGP at www.exploredance.com and they certainly don't show any of the distortions that Dale mentioned. I agree with Balletmama that artistry did win out in the end when choosing the YAGP winners. The 'Flash' and 'Tricks' which seemed to be very pleasing to the audience obviously didn't please the judges. I certainly agree that competitions in general can pose many problems, especially for the younger dancer who is being pushed by teachers and coaches. Entering one is a big responsibility and undertaking as it takes away a great deal of your daily ballet routine. The older dancers gain a whole lot more than the younger ones as their training is almost complete...they know their bodies and the pressures they can withstand . For us the unexpected happened and many doors opened as a result. I feel we entered this competition at the 'right' time and for the 'right' reasons.

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Tango, while I don't like the idea of competitions in ballet, I have also said before and will say again, if it helps dancers who are ready to enter the profession to get a job, then wonderful! I'm absolutely TOTALLY in favor of dancers getting contracts.....otherwise why would I be teaching! ;) For dancers who are 18 or 19, and ready to do this kind of work, as long as they are properly coached in terms of ballet being an art form and not a circus, if it leads to a better future for them I think it's great. However, I still thing that in general the wrong values are placed on competitions and that winning a gold medal should not be the ideal for an aspiring dancer. Winning a contract, however, well, that I can deal with! :o

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I wanted to clarify something. I think it would be narrow to put the focus on YAGP or any other competition in this discussion. It might not be fair of me to speak for Victoria, but I didn't get the idea that she was blaming YAGP for the high extentions (let's not get on the subject of that competition again). But rather why were there so many dancers with those high extentions in classical variations at a competition? Is it an explotation of a facility that should be used as spice, not the meat, of a dancer's art. I think it's very tempting for companies to use dancers with a particular gift as an attraction - "Come see the girl who can turn! Just $95. See her turn like a top. She can turn more than four times in a row." Who is that? Gillian Murphy. "She the girl with the rubber legs!" Zakharova. "See the boy who can jump and turn like a mad man!" Corella. "See the girl with the longest legs in history!" Kowroski. The people come, so the AD puts the dancer out there as much as possible. Not a Giselle? Don't worry. Want to see her in an evening-length Swan Lake even though she can't really handle the techical demands of Act III? It's not important. Oh, you say there aren't enough turns in this masterpiece to satisfy your desire to see the turning boy turn? We'll add some more. It doesn't matter if it doesn't go with the music.

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To follow this line to a slightly different venue - what about the "creating of a star" in a ballet school?

Naturally there are different strengths, abliities and talents within a ballet school's student population but sometimes it can appear that 'stars' are being polished for a few years and then they lose their lustre...and a new one is up and shining.

Dale, I like your way of describing these more bravura moves as "a facility that should be used as spice, not the meat, of a dancer's art" - spice is nice every now and then when it enhances the main course. ;)

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Though I have never liked competitions, I often sit on a panel of judges at a local competition. This competition is a tribute to a young dancer who was killed in a car accident. Her parents hold this competition in her memory and cash prizes are awarded. It's a very small competition.

Three years ago, a very young woman from Washington School of Ballet was among the entrants. She had technique and artistry, and images of her performances are still etched quite clearly in my memory. She was an example of having the technique and the artistry completely on top of it.

I hear she is doing triple fouettes now with no sweat. This is a great example of the creation of a star. This girl obviously has something special that is being nurtured and continually improved upon.

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Thanks, Glebb :o Actually, the one you speak of is dancing Odette, not Odile. While she is a solid and consistent turner, she is not the whiz bang fast turner doing the triple fouettés! However, she has indeed developed into a graduating senior with an excellent potential for a future in ballet. Her artistry and musicality, as well as technical strength are exceptional, and I am looking forward to her performances as Odette next week.

Dale, thank you! I was indeed speaking totally about competitions in general, as well as expoloitation of talented young dancers, and not of any one competition. I also love the "spice" part of your post! :)

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Dale...Since YAGP was mentioned in relation to this discussion it was certainly valid to bring the pointe of these pictures up and to voice my opinion on your comments relating to them. IN NO WAY do I feel Victoria blamed YAGP as I know she was speaking of competitions in general. I certainly hold the same beliefs that she does about ballet competitions and the values they project to our students today of higher/faster which I feel is distorting so much of the art that I love. Coming from the 'golden era" of ballet (60's and 70's) I too cringe when I see this on stage and wish it were different. I miss Fonteyn and all the wonderful ballerinas that were valued for their pure expressive dancing and not their amazing circus feats. But companies and schools are the biggest culprit in allowing this and for trying to create 'stars' and not artists. I feel in the end the ballet competition world does adhere to a standard of excellence and allows for great opportunities for these young dancers to find their way into the professional world. For that it is a good thing!

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My understanding is that there is usually a list of variations for each category, juniors, seniors, men. The teachers or coaches, along with the students, then select the variation or variations they will present. Usually there is also a contemporary variation, which can be something new that is choreographed for the student by the teacher or someone from the studio they attend. In the professional competitions I would think that the company director would select the dancers and the work they present. I know that Ben Stevenson did whenever he took someone to Jackson, or even to Prix de Lausanne. He also choreographed their contemporary work.

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Calliope...Let me add to what Victoria said about the Contemporary pieces. The students can also 'hire' choreographers to do these pieces for them as we were supplied with a long list of them to call...but ONLY if we couldn't find someone to choreograph our piece. If that were the only alternative for us we would not have entered at all. We were fortunate to have two very talented people we knew who wanted to help and they ended up choreographing a beautiful piece for us. There were several students who did hire choreographers as well as students who bought the rights to use choreography that had already been done( these were listed in the program). That aspect was abit unnerving. Lastly...it wasn't quite like 'best in show' but more similar to the olympics when it came to judging. There were two scores, one for technical and one for artistic and we were were given them at the end. It was interesting to see each judge's name and the scores they gave as well as their personal comments on the variations.

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Tango49, my original comment was not directed toward any competition. I only looked at that particular web site, saw that about one in every three picture on it was of a high extention or an over-split jump and relayed my observation. That was it.

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BW, I will try to answer a little bit of your question about training a "star" in a ballet school, although I must say I cannot take credit for training a phenomenon of any sort, mainly good, solid classically trained dancers who have been working in the profession at very high levels as well as various levels in between. I hope that will do. I cannot say I have one answer though. Very much of the actual star syndrome is created by a particular Artistic Director, the marketing staff of a company, and at times even critics.

First and foremost I must say that each student I have worked with has shown an undeniably obvious desire to succeed. What I mean by this is that the personality was there to begin with. In essence, a student/dancer is driven and loves to perform, whether it is in class or on stage there is an undeniable shining light , no fear, an attack to the work.

Of course these ingredients are provided by the student/dancer but without slow, methodical training, a highly professional eye that is able to mold the dancers'/students' mind in many aspects of dance, not just classroom work, the art of ballet is cheapened and the dancer will loose the necessary knowledge to excell. A dancer/student must obtain humility and a curiousity to understand at least physically (sometimes the intellectual part is developed after the physical part) why and how to make oneself better. A teacher can teach a student/dancer about these things but it must come from the dancer. It is not like make-up or a hat or shirt that can be put on and taken off. These things are internal. I am not quite sure if one can actually learn this. A teacher must teach one who possesses these qualities how to temper the urges the desires that can sometimes be so strong one is over powered but I, at least cannot say I have ever actually taught someone these qualities. They either had them or they didn't. If there is a teacher out there who can say how to teach this... bottle it and make a few million. I know many who would buy it!:D

Sometimes I had technically better dancers not have a profession and those with what I call the personality succeed beyond my wildest imagination. I remember when I first started working as a teacher, I did have a very beautiful class, generally all physically suited for the profession but there was this one little girl, only average feet, face only average, proportions average. She looked like a vagabond amidst these beauties, but she had more spark. Over the 6 year period that I had the pleasure to work with these fine young people, she was always pushing harder than the others. She was always in essense in my face, sometimes to the point that it was annoying!;) Well, out of a class of 12 boys and girls, 6 of them had careers, but she had the biggest. Maybe not in the biggest company but she worked in a smaller company as the "star", the others became corps or soloists of very big companies. So you tell me, who was the star?;)

I hope I was able to help a bit.

BTW, I know many of the previous years winners, Grand Prix and otherwise in YAGP, and I guess it is a matter of opinion whether or not they actually counted artistry more this year than in previous years. The young dancers I know who were awarded grand prix and top prizes, in the past for the most part were not just flash and weak in artistry. IMOH ;)

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vrsfanatic, many thanks for your thoughtful reply. When I initially posed my question I was actually aiming towards more of the "negative" aspect of creating a "star" within a ballet school...but I like the tack your post takes much better!

I appreciate your descriptions - both general and specific - of what makes a successful dancer and wish that this thread could be brought to the attention of more students and parents out there! :)

Thank you!

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Right Pamela, and a thought that brings us back to the original purpose of this topic, which was the idea of creating a "star" as opposed to an artist. It is my feeling that the competitions generally lend themselves towards the kind of work which may well create a star dancer, or one who is exceptional technically for her/his age, and can do lots of tricks with much flash and dash. Creating an artist is a whole different thing, and the long, slow training process, followed by a proper progression to performance is ignored. Developing an artist is just not about how many pirouettes or fouettés, or how high the jump or extension. My original "thesis" here was that competitions encourage the flashy whiz bang dancers with exceptional technical ability, and then companies take them and make them "stars" before they have had a chance to develop as artists and grow into the principal roles in major ballets. There is a certain amount of maturity necessary that sometimes is just not given a chance. When they become "stars" before they have matured to the point of being able to handle the major roles, UNDERSTAND the roles, and handle the pressure, it can destroy rather than build. I feel that this happened with Paloma, and the years of yo-yoing have shown that. The reports now that she is coming into her own and finally showing signs of becoming the ballerina that she showed the potential a long time ago to become are great news, however, I think those years of ups and downs could have been avoided.

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Would you say one might equate this phenomenon with that of a "child prodigy"? Yes, thankfully, some do make it into their mature years - their 30's to 80's plus...but I'm sure there are many who do not due to either too much too soon and/or not enough wisdom within their advisors...:D

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