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Erik Bruhn Prize
Catherine Hurlin of American Ballet Theatre in “Don Quixote.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

The Erik Bruhn Prize

The 13th International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize

Performance
13th International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize
Place
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ontario, March 23, 2019
Words
Oksana Khadarina

Catherine Hurlin, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, and Siphesihle November, a corps de ballet dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, each won the 13th International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize held on Saturday, March 23, at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

Originated in 1988, the Erik Bruhn Prize is a sparkling showcase of the best young talents (all participants must be between the ages of 18 and 23) from some of the world’s preeminent ballet troupes. These are the companies with which Erik Bruhn—a legendary dancer and artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada from 1986 until his death in 1988—was closely associated during his artistic career. American Ballet Theatre (represented by Aran Bell and Catherine Hurlin), the Royal Danish Ballet (Emma Riis-Kofoed and Mattia Santini), the Hamburg Ballet (Matias Oberlin and Sara Ezzell), and the National Ballet of Canada (Jeannine Haller and Siphesihle November) participated in this year’s competition, each dancer being hand-picked by their company’s artistic director.

In the first part of the competition, the dancers performed a classical pas de deux and variation. After the intermission, they were judged in performance of a contemporary piece. Each of the four contemporary ballets was specifically commissioned for this event, and their creators, in turn, were competing for the Choreographic Prize.

The judges of the competition were Karen Kain, Nikolaj Hübbe, Kevin McKenzie and principal ballet master of the Hamburg Ballet, Kevin Haigen. (According to the rules, the judges cannot vote for their own dancers.)

The classical section of the evening turned into a dazzling display of bravura dancing. ABT’s Hurling and Bell threw themselves fiercely into the spirited virtuosity of the Act III Pas de deux from “Don Quixote,” setting a festive tone from the start. The dancers surfed effortlessly through the multiple technical hurdles of the choreography, dancing with youthful flair and excitement. Hurling was particularly memorable. Always staying in character, she was elegant, charming and technically superb. Her invigorating performance in this piece undoubtedly contributed to her win. Despite a small mishap at the very end of the duet, Bell looked strong as well, proving a capable partner to Hurling and a charismatic performer, with a powerful jump and expressive interpretive skills. He is definitely a dancer to watch.

Erik Bruhn Prize
Siphesihle November of the National Ballet of Canada in “La Sylphide.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

If the pas de deux from “Don Quixote” was the flashiest exponent of the classical ballet lexicon, the Act II pas de deux from “La Sylphide” showcased the lightness and ethereal grace of the idyllic movement style of Danish choreographer August Bournonville. The National Ballet’s November was sensational in this piece—his clean and unforced way of movement, especially his effortless jumps and turns and his pliant port de bras, suited perfectly to the weightless and fluid nature of the choreography. With his masterful dancing, he won not only the votes of the judges but also the hearts of the audience. His partner, the willowy Jeannine Haller, was appropriately serene and mysterious, but I found her performance a tad bland.

Royal Danish Ballet’s Riis-Kofoed and Santini performed another Bournonville’s piece—the pas de deux from “The Flower Festival in Genzano.” It’s a vibrant and festive duet, with intricate footwork and eloquent partnering. Their performance was technically accomplished on many levels, but emotionally it didn’t spark. The lack of emotional intensity undermined the performance of Ezzell and Oberlin of the Hamburg Ballet as well. The dancers demonstrated considerable technical chops in the pas de deux from “The Nutcracker,” with the choreography by John Neumeier but, alas, they showed very little character and their partnership was short on dramatic tension.

The contemporary part of the competition brought four world premieres of contemporary ballet on the stage—an achievement in its own right. The Hamburg Ballet’s choreographer, Kristian Lever, won the Choreographic Prize for his contemplative yet quirky piece titled “An intimate distance.” Set to the music “Broken bridges” by Kellen and Marshall McDaniel, the duet was replete with angular gestures and broken lines and explored thorny terrains and insecurities of young love. It was performed with admirable passion and skill by Ezzell and Oberlin.

My personal favorite was Jessica Lang’s Tony Bennett-inspired “Let Me Sing Forevermore,” which was created for ABT’s dancers. (This is yet another foray of Lang into the fruitful fields of Bennett’s songbook, the first being “This Thing Called Love,” which had its premiere last year.) Just like Twyla Tharp found an endless source of joy and inspiration in Frank Sinatra’s oeuvre, Lang put her own interpretive spin on Bennett’s music, capturing in movement the dynamism, vitality and charisma of his marvelous songs. With greatest hits like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “I’ve Got Rhythm,” the soundtrack itself was a gem. It was a real pleasure to see Hurlin and Bell in this utterly absorbing pas de deux. The dancers truly enjoyed themselves as they expertly navigated Lang’s medley of swing and jazz-infused movements, full of daredevil lifts and turns.

Alysa Pires’s “The Other Side” to the blistering soundscape of Aphex Twin invited onstage National Ballet of Canada’s Haller and November, who gave a spirited performance of this enigmatic, if not particularly compelling piece. The Royal Danish Ballet’s couple, Riis-Kofoed and Santini, together with an electronic clock, performed Nathan Compiano’s “Code.” Set to a piano score (by Bruce Brubaker) that featured a 6-note theme repeated in a loop, this 10-minute duet offered little variety and surprise in terms of music and choreographic vocabulary; and, thanks to the clock, we knew exactly how long it would last.

Erik Bruhn Prize
Siphe November, winner of Erik Bruhn Prize. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

While the judges deliberated, the audience was treated to the dancers of the National Ballet of Canada in a dynamic performance of Julia Adam’s “Night,” a ballet that was part of the excellent mixed program the company brought to the Four Seasons during the month of March.

When the winners were announced, the audience cheered with approval. November received an especially warm round of applause—despite his young age, this immensely talented dancer has already established a dedicated fan base in Toronto.

As winners of this year’s competition, Hurlin and November joined an outstanding group of dancers who have won the Erik Bruhn Prize in the past, including such ballet luminaries as Julie Kent and Johan Kobborg. Yet the dancers who didn’t win found themselves in no less prestigious company. Viviana Durante, Greta Hodgkinson, Marcelo Gomes, David Hallberg, and Misty Copeland are among the past participants—a testament of the supreme level of talent that the International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize unfailingly brings onstage.

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