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Genée International Ballet Competition Final

by David Mead

November 21, 2010 -- Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

That there were no gold medals awarded at the final of the 2010 Genée did not come as a surprise. Although the sell-out and enthusiastic audience had an enjoyable evening, no dancer really stood out as being exceptional. But after a very close competition, especially among the girls, Judges Antoinette Sibley (Royal Academy of Dance), Monica Mason (The Royal Ballet) and David Nixon (Northern Ballet) awarded silver medals to British dancers Francesca Hayward and Sean Bates, both 18 and both studying at The Royal Ballet School. The School rather dominated proceedings, with fellow 17-year old students Lachlan Monaghan of Australia and Briton Tierney-Ann Heap picking up bronze medals, along with Italian Orazio Di Bella, 19, from the Elmhurst School of Dance in Birmingham. The audience pretty much agreed with the judges, which is not always the case, and after a close vote bestowed The Audience Choice Award also to Hayward.

Each dancer gets to dance three solos, one from a twentieth century work, a new piece, and one from a nineteenth century classic. The first, for which the competitors were able to select from a list of Ashton and MacMillan choreography, were a little disappointing. Many of the girls showed a decided lack of use of the upper body and back in their Ashton work. The exceptions were Heap, whose work was nicely accented with beautifully soft arms, and Hayward, who looked somewhat stronger physically than most of the other girls and presented some very solid arabesques and lines. Standing out among the boys was Di Bella. Not only was his selection from “Elite Synchopations” different in style to the others, but he packed it with attitude. While full of razor sharp changes of direction, what was impressive was the way he found time for the occasional momentary pause that left a series of memorable images behind.

Most of the dancers found more scope for expression in the new variations made by Liam Scarlett. He says his aim was to showcase the dancers by allowing them the freedom to find a balance between his choreographic integrity and personal interpretation. And it worked as all the dancers put their own stamp on the choreography. Although some parts called for softness, the female variation worked best when it was largely attacked. Hayward in particular took this approach, giving an almost Balanchine-like opening. Unusually, the boys’ variation eschewed bravado and focused more on subtlety. It called for some quite sustained movement with lots of high jumps that needed not only to be controlled, but also to be landed very softly. It also had a most unusual opening that called for the dancers to face upstage and really show the audience they were using their backs.

The classical solos rather disappointed. Where was the excitement? Where was the musicality? Where was the personality? Hayward, who was by now looking the clear winner among the girls, stood out for simply being calm and precise. In many ways boys are luckier as their choreography usually allows them to throw themselves into things rather more. Four out of the five did just that as they danced the variation from “Don Quixote.” Bates stood out a mile. He was particularly impressive in his attack and enthusiasm, although only a very quick piece of thinking and improvisation saved the day when he almost fell on his last jump and turn.

Despite the fact British dancers finished extremely prominently, let’s not pretend that this confirms that all is well in British ballet training. When compared with dancers from the Far East of a similar age, most of the competitors showed a worrying lack of strength (or was it stamina, or both?). There was a pronounced inability, for example, to hold an arabesque. I lost count of the number of times legs wavered quite noticeably.

There will always be questions about the value of competitions like the Genée, but they do give dancers a chance to gain experience, which is not to be at all dismissed. But there must be doubts as to how the event stands in comparison with other international contests. Of course, the dancers come from a much narrower base. The contest is organised by the Royal Academy of Dance, and competitors must have been RAD trained, which heavily cuts down on the potential entries. It is very true that different competitions and juries look for different things and maybe the grass always seems greener elsewhere, but dancers at the Prix de Lausanne, for example, do look much more accomplished. And look at the list of selected participants for the 2011 Prix. Out of 87 acceptances: only two are at British schools, both at the English National Ballet School, and they are French and Japanese respectively. It would be interesting to know how many applied and didn’t make it through the initial selection process. Of course, Far East schools and students tend to place more emphasis on competitions than do Europeans, and no fewer than 40 of those entrants are from China, Japan or South Korea, but those figures should be telling us something.

The fact that the vast majority of British ballet students fail to get jobs with British companies who seem to find better dancers overseas suggests strongly that the balance of power in training is heading East, and at a rate of knots. There are probably all sorts of reasons, but let’s put to bed once and for all the idea that young people in the UK are either less devoted to the art or have so many distractions or other things to do. There may be cultural differences and attitudes to learning but I have my doubts as to just how much difference they make, and children everywhere have so many choices these days. I would love to be proved incorrect, but I fear something rather more fundamental is going wrong.

The 2011 Genée International Ballet Competition will take place in Cape Town, South Africa.

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