Cory Stearns was feeling cocky. It was 2001, and he was 15, competing in the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition. As he took the stage to perform a solo from “Swan Lake,” some students from his school cheered, and he winked back. Then the start of the music surprised him, and, as he remembers it, he “choked completely.”
In video footage, the performance doesn’t look as bad as that. But when it was over, he ran off and burst into tears.
He thought he had lost, and in a sense, he was right. He didn’t win the competition. But he had already won something more valuable. The director of Royal Ballet School in London, spotting potential, had offered him a full scholarship.
“That scholarship was everything,” Mr. Stearns said between rehearsals last week. “It gave me a professional career.” Soon after graduating, he joined the Studio Company of American Ballet Theater, then rose into the main troupe, where he has been an acclaimed principal dancer since 2011.
His is one of many success stories for Youth America Grand Prix, the world’s largest ballet scholarship competition, now celebrating its 20th anniversary. At Lincoln Center on Thursday and Friday, during the “Stars of Today Meet Stars of Tomorrow” gala performances, some of this year’s finalists will perform on a program with some of the biggest names in ballet, most of them former finalists, including Mr. Stearns.
And this year, the shows get an extra dose of celebrity as another Youth America alum and Ballet Theater dancer, Melanie Hamrick — who also happens to be Mick Jagger’s girlfriend — returns to choreograph (with Jenn DeFelice, yet another alum) a romp for some Ballet Theater colleagues set to Rolling Stones songs arranged by Mr. Jagger. (Mr. Jagger, who just underwent heart surgery, likely won’t be in attendance.)
By the time of the galas, though, the most significant phase of Youth America will already have passed. Over the last year, more than 12,000 ballet students, 9 to 19, have participated in a couple dozen regional semifinals — mostly in America, with a few more in Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. The finals in New York this week determine the winners, but the competition is less important than what it makes happen: connecting aspiring ballet dancers with the directors of top schools and companies, who give out far more scholarships than awards.
“Our formula is very simple,” said Larissa Saveliev, Youth America’s founder and artistic director. “You don’t have to win to get the prize. The real prizes are the scholarships. And for those, you just have to be noticed by one director.”
“We are,” she continued, “the biggest matchmaker operation in the ballet world.”
In 20 years, Youth America has facilitated more than four million dollars in scholarships. Hundreds of its alumni fill the ranks of the most prominent troupes in America and the world. The numbers are impressive, but to understand stories like Mr. Stearns’s, you have to look past the statistics into the heart of the operation: Ms. Saveliev.
She and her husband, Gennadi, trained at the Bolshoi school, in Moscow. They both joined the Bolshoi, but when the company toured to the United States in 1993, they defected.
“We call it ‘defect,’” Mr. Saveliev said, “but by then nobody cared.”
He was 19. She was 24. The first years were hard. “No company wants to hire you if you don’t have work papers,” Ms. Saveliev said, “but to get work papers you need a contract.”
Someone suggested that Mr. Saveliev enter the New York International Ballet Competition, which he did, hoping that winning would help him with his visa problems. Instead, Kevin McKenzie, Ballet Theater’s director, saw him and offered him a job. Mr. Saveliev danced with the company until his retirement in 2012.
The couple settled in New Jersey, where Ms. Saveliev cared for their child and taught ballet in a local school. Sometimes, she would accompany her students to jazz-dance competitions and wonder where the serious ballet students and teachers were.
“Everybody told me, ballet kids don’t go to competitions,” Ms. Saveliev said. “Later, a ballet parent told me that when she was looking for serious ballet schools, she would call and ask the school if they did competitions, and if the answer was yes, she hung up.”
This stigma was strong: Ballet is an art, not a sport, people would say. But Ms. Saveliev’s desire to meet ballet teachers and students was strong too. Thinking of annual gatherings of ballet schools in Russia, and of what that adult competition had meant for her husband’s career, she decided to start a youth competition of her own.
The hardest part, Mr. Saveliev said, was to break the stigma and get people to participate. When they called the many friends in the ballet world they had made while traveling around the country as dancers and teachers, even those friends hesitated. Ballet professionals associated youth dance competitions with vulgarity and amateurism, not excellence.
John Meehan, then the director of Ballet Theater’s Studio Company, was the first representative of a major organization to serve as a judge and offer scholarships. The Royal Ballet joined the next year, and the year after that, the John Cranko School, affiliated with the Stuttgart Ballet. Lured by the big names, more young dancers signed up, which lured more schools, and the whole thing snowballed. (The 2011 documentary “First Position” attracted even more attention.)
Now, the scale is unequaled. The finals in New York are — as Tadeusz Matacz, the director of the Cranko school, put it — “a unique opportunity to see all the best dancers in one place within a few days.”
It’s not just about New York, though. Calvin Royal III, a Ballet Theater soloist returning to perform in Ms. Hamrick’s Stones piece, got his scholarship to that company’s school (which he had never heard of) before he even made it to New York. Mr. Matacz signed up Gabriel Figueredo, a favorite to win this year, at an event in the boy’s home country, Brazil, when he was 12.
Adam Sklute, the director of Ballet West, has been a finalist judge for 10 years, but he also likes to attend the regional events. “I have found students for my school that way, who may not have made it to New York.”
“Even in New York,” he continued, “the dancers I take are not necessarily the winners. What’s right for me may not be right for somebody else.”
This is the matchmaking that Youth America does, and it goes way beyond getting everyone in the same place. Dancers often need guidance. When Mr. Sklute chose Beckanne Sisk, she had her heart set on a different company. Ms. Saveliev had to convince her to go with Ballet West, where her career has flourished.
Recently, Ms. Saveliev alerted Ms. Sisk to an opening at another troupe. Ms. Sisk wasn’t interested. It isn’t unusual for Ms. Saveliev to check in like this on the dancers she calls her babies. She makes sure each fit is right. (One rule she’s learned: “Never send Brazilian to Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Too cold!”)
“Larissa remembers everyone,” Ms. Hamrick said. “Even after I got my place at A.B.T., she kept checking in. And now she’s taking a chance on me again, since I’ve never choreographed before.”
Back at the beginning, Mr. and Ms. Saveliev recalled, it was sometimes difficult to persuade students to follow their advice. Now the many success stories do the persuading — stories like Mr. Stearns’s.
Even after he won that scholarship to the Royal Ballet School, he still couldn’t imagine attending. The distance between London and his hometown Mattituck, in Long Island, was too vast to contemplate. “If it had been left up to me, with a deadline to respond, I wouldn’t have gone,” he said. Who pushed him in the right direction? Ms. Saveliev.
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