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Erik Bruhn Prize Competition

by Kate Snedeker

March 18, 2009 -- Four Seasons Centre, Toronto, Canada

The Eighth International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize turned out to be a great success for the “home team”. National Ballet of Canada corps dance Elena Lobsanova walked away with $7,500 and a Jack Culiner sculpture as the top female dancer, while choreographer Matjash Mrozewski received the inaugural choreography award. Cory Stearns, a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre was the recipient of the award for best male dancer.

The competition, held approximately every two years, is funded by a bequest from the will of renowned Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. The competition is limited to dancers between 18-23, with one couple invited from each company that Bruhn was associated with during his career – American Ballet Theatre, Royal Danish Ballet, National Ballet of Canada and the Royal Ballet. This year the Royal Ballet was unable to send a couple, so the San Francisco Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet were invited instead.

During the course of the evening, each couple performed a classical pas de deux and a contemporary pas de deux choreographed specifically for the competition. Beginning with this year’s competition, an award was also presented for the top contemporary choreographer. 

The three hour long competition provided many exciting moments, each couple providing a glimpse into the style of their respective companies. However, while the high quality performances demonstrated that there is a plethora of young balletic talent, there seems to be a lack of ability in selecting choreography to show off this talent. Many of the classical selections seemed trite, and most of the contemporary pieces were unmemorable.

Without exception, the quality of the partnering was excellent.  Nerves were apparent in some solos, primarily in the classical pas de deux, but there were no significant mistakes. There was no doubt that this was a group of highly professional dancers, if still youthful works in progress.

 

Hilary Guswiler and Alban Lendorf, Royal Danish Ballet

Act II pdd from “La Sylphide” and “An Elegy for Us” by Iain Rowe

I didn't know what to expect from the Danes; I've seen both of them dance on many occasions, but only in the back of the corps. At just 18 and 19, with less than a year of experience in the RDB corps de ballet, they were by far the youngest couple in the competition. Lendorf has been getting rave reviews from critics back in Denmark, and while his interpretation of James is still very much a work in progress, his solos were impressive. Though he slightly under-rotated some his double tours, especially towards the end, no fault could be found in his sparkling beats.  (Interestingly, this was about the only pas de deux that had any beats from the male dancer).

Guswiler was very delicate, with the beautiful epaulément and sparkling mime that are so characteristic of the Bournonville style. She had a few bobbles, but her years of Bournonville training were obvious. As a couple, their strength was in the ability to tell a story through both mime and dance.

Ian Rowe's “An Elegy for Us” stood out amongst the contemporary offerings, as both the most modern and the only piece to eschew the use of pointe shoes. It was a short piece involving a tempestuous relationship and two chairs. While Rowe made good use of the Danes’ theatrical abilities, the pas de deux had some weaknesses, the primary one being the long stretch of non-dance in the beginning.  The choreography also gave some really impressive views of Alban Lendorf's considerable talent. He has a lot of power and height, and it might have played more in Danes’ favour had Rowe better highlighted this ability.

 

Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns, American Ballet Theatre

Black Swan Pas de Deux from Act III of Swan Lake and “End.” by Marcelo Gomes

Stearns and Boylston were powerful and precise in the flashy Black Swan Pas de Deux.  Aside from the Danes, the New Yorkers were the only dancers who seemed well matched with their classical pas de deux. Kevin McKenzie’s “Swan Lake” is hardly a masterpiece, but his staging of the Black Swan Pas Deux is all ABT – big, bold, brash and bravura-filled.    Boylston and Stearns breezed through the tricky choreography, each step fully shaped so the impact was maximized.   Boylston’s interpretation is more brash than seductive, but no less wickedly fun.  She did not quite get the full 32 fouettés, but her balances were impressive.   Stearns, however, did look tight in some of his solos, a tenseness that seemed due to nerves, not lack of ability.  As such, I was a bit surprised by his win – he is very talented, but I don’t think this was his finest performance.

Gomes’ bland “End.” was fairly basic choreographically, and generally forgettable.  With the red-purple romantic tutu for the ballerina, and sweetly romantic air, it seemed to be “In the Night” lite. In a different setting the ballet might have been a fun bit of light entertainment, but in this context it was problematic because it didn’t provide the dancers with a true contemporary challenge. Both Stearns and Boylston have a powerful solidity that was not at all highlighted by Gomes' choreography; it would have been lovely to see her on demi pointe and the two of them given something edgy to sink their teeth into. I'd love to have seen them in a piece by Iain Rowe or Matjash Mrozewski.

 

Rachele Buriassi and William Moore, Stuttgart Ballet

Black Swan Pas de Deux from Act III of Swan Lake and “La Grande Parade du Funk”  by Bridget Breiner

The Stuttgart couple was probably the weakest of the bunch, not helped by Cranko’s  unique staging of the Black Swan Pas de Deux.  Moore, a graduate of the Royal Ballet School, is a tall, elegant dancer, while Buriassi is a more delicate, emotional Black Swan.  Whether due to jet lag or inexperience, both seem a bit physically overwhelmed, noticeably tiring in both pas de deuxs. She appeared very stiff in the first half of the classical pas deux, then almost fell out of her first or second fouetté, putting on an impressive display of power to keep going to 32 with a few doubles thrown in. More notable for his partnering skills, Moore was probably the weakest of the male soloists. Like several of the male dancers, he seemed to be battling adrenaline surges in that he pushed too hard at the beginning of a solo – in this case a very impressive opening to turns in second – and then quickly ran out of power.

Breiner’s pas de deux, set to a punchy Brubeck score, was entertaining though choreographically simplistic. The performance started out strongly, but the repetitive nature of the choreography and the waning energy of the dancers caused it to fizzle out.

 

Dores Andre and Anthony Spaulding, San Francisco Ballet

pas de deux from Act II of Giselle and “Ebony Concerto” by Val Caniparoli

Dores Andre and Anthony Spaulding from San Francisco Ballet were the most elegant of the dancers, and their Giselle pas de deux was very polished. This was probably the most challenging choice of pas de deux, given the emphasis on partnering and the complex emotional context.  However, the couple seemed comfortable dancing together, and if the performance was somewhat emotionally monotone, it had a nice maturity.  Andre and Spaulding were able to keep a steady flow throughout the piece, finding that fine line between nervous speed and excessive caution. Given the sparseness of the solos, it wasn’t the best selection to highlight a male dancer, but Spaulding made a good impression on me.

Unfortunately, Caniparoli's piece was quite forgettable; so much so, that I remember almost nothing from the performance. As such, I think the pair suffered because their contemporary performance did little to help their cause.

 

Elena Lobsanova and Noah Long, National Ballet of Canada

dancing a pas de deux from Le Corsaire and “Dénouement” by Matjash Mrozewski

The Canadians were probably helped (and perhaps more nervous) because of home advantage. Their selection of classical repertoire was not ideal – there are only so many Le Corsaires one can see in a lifetime.  Lobsanova is exquisite – delicate without sacrificing power or panache, and certainly was worthy of the award. Elegantly proportioned and an engaging performer, Long wowed in the pas de chat an tournant, but not as natural a turner.   He started off well, but I think he had to put a foot down to press up from the first bent-knee pirouette.   However, despite their buoyant performance, I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a more appropriate, less trite pas de deux that would have better highlighted both their strengths – perhaps something from Coppélia or La Fille mal Gardée (It’s not as if Le Corsaire has any special link to NBoC or NBoC’s style.)

Mrozewski’s piece was the most choreographically developed of the evening, and perfectly suited the dancers’ talents. However at the end of a long evening, the mind tended to wander, not helped by the very long duration of the piece. A bit of judicious editing would have helped to focus the choreographic impact, and keep the audience’s focus. Longer is generally not better!

While the judges were voting on the performances, we were treated to an excerpt of Sabrina Matthews' Dextris .  The excerpt was danced on a bare stage with taped music. Without the onstage clutter, the focus was  on the dancers and the piece was MUCH more effective and interesting. The ballet also seems to work better  when viewed from the orchestra level – perhaps because this angle allows the dancers in their tan costumes to be viewed against the dark backdrop, rather than against the light coloured floor. This may be an instance where a choreographer needed to think about the impact for audiences looking down at the dancers (a significant portion of the audience in a theatre), not just those at stage level.

It was an evening of wonderful dancing and worthy awardees. However, I think that the organizers may want to consider giving the choreography contest more structure. Firstly, as there was a huge range in the length of pieces, it would be nice to have a time guideline.  Also, given the huge range in the experience of the choreographers – I wonder if it might be more appropriate to limit the competition to choreographers who have not yet had more than a couple of major commissions. After all, the competition is for young dancers, so why not also make it a competition for young (literally or experience-wise) choreographers?

On a more lighthearted note, I wouldn't be against a moratorium on Swan Lake and Le Corsaire. It would be nice to see dancers look further into the classical repertoire and not just the competition warhorses. There's lots more out there - Coppélia, La Bayadère, Nutcracker, Onegin, La Fille mal Gardée, Sleeping Beauty, plus some other Cranko, Robbins, Balanchine etc. that could probably be used.


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