As someone who did time in the jazz and tap competition circuit and then Regional Dance America festivals, I was curious to see the Gala performance for the Youth American Grand Prix, which has become one of the biggest dance competitions in the world. The YAGP, in its 24th year, holds annual events in 30 American cities and 15 international ones, giving out half a million dollars in scholarships. I’ve recently covered the more conventional pathways to a dance career: junior troupes and institutional workshops. The YAGP provides yet another route to professional employment, particularly for students who reside outside of metropolitan dance hubs. As board member Sergei Gordeev stated in his introductory speech: presently, 60 of American Ballet Theater’s 93 dancers are YAGP alums, and “over a dozen” former competitors are currently in the New York City Ballet.
The show, at Alice Tully Hall, was titled “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow,” and it featured 10 solos or duets by recent competition winners and 10 excerpts performed by professional dancers, including big names from ABT and NYCB as well as the exciting New York debuts of several European stars. The student competitors ranged in age from 10 to 18, and they performed a mix of brutal, old, classical Russian variations (from the likes of “Grand Pas Classique,” “Don Quixote,” and “The Little Humpbacked Horse”) and twitchy, acrobatically inclined contemporary dances (think Sia’s “Chandelier” video). The YAGP has two divisions: ballet and contemporary. These categories seemed mostly demarcated by avian allegiance: the ballet students were aiming to be graceful swans; the contemporary ones emulated tweaky chickens. The contemporary genre was further splintered: the students interpreted it as emo-gymnastics, the adult stars presented it as more strictly dance-based. There were also two club-influenced group dances by the YAGP International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), a 35-dancer troupe composed of students from 12 different countries. The second of these, Ohad Naharin’s self-important “Decadance,” had the kids rope in audience members from the first rows in an awkward wallflower prisoner situation. Kudos to the woman in the long, green gown who was unwittingly recruited for a principal role. She somehow made it through without tripping, what a good sport! But momentarily, the show’s title needed adjusting: “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow and their Overdressed Hostages.”
The well-heeled crowd who was lucky enough to remain offstage was full of dance-world luminaries (heavy on ABT alumni) and socialites. They were treated to nearly two straight hours of flashy tricks; it was the balletic equivalent of a big top circus. And, once you embraced that vibe, it was just as much fun. The Alice Tully Hall has no curtain, so quick blackouts were all that separated the selections, making the show feel like one long highwire act. The dances were stacked with ballet’s boldest feats: revoltades, barrel turns, 540’s, pirouettes and à la secondes galore, Italian fouettés, and not one but two sets of 32 fouetté turns. On the contemporary side, there were a zillion walkovers and countless over-squats in second position. Consequently, in either genre, the most arresting moments became the stillest ones—like when the Gounod couple let a few bars of music go by before entering for their pas. Otherwise, it started to feel perfectly natural for a spastic group in black leotards and socks (ICE again, dancing the generically Euro-centric excerpt from Sharon Eyal’s “OCD Love”) to be chased off the stage by a lanky teenager in a glittering red vest doing quintuple attitude turns (Alexei Orohovsky, 15, in “Paquita.” He rushed, but he’s got the goods.)
Since both teens and adults (and kids! Anne Takahashi, age 10, was going for triples in her “Harlequinade” solo) were doing a lot of the same stunts, it was a wonderful opportunity to assess what, if anything, separated the students from the pros. Fascinatingly, there turned out to be a stark divide, but it was neither the number of turns nor aesthetics that delineated the camps. (In fact, I’d give the award for best lines of the night to the beautiful Morgan Ligon, age 11. Though ABT’s Chloe Misseldine and La Scala Ballet’s Jacopo Tissi were not far behind.) Though the students were uber-talented, it was easy to tell when the pros took over the show because of their finesse in the in-between steps. They rolled through their feet; they knitted sequences together. They didn’t look like they were prepping for their next trick the whole time. Professionalism was evident in Jun Masuda and Shale Wagman’s control and chiaroscuro in the US premiere of Marco Geocke’s “Hungarian Dance” (demented chicken-chic at its very finest, fabulous). And professionalism was more apparent in the way Tiler Peck, in Balanchine’s “Tarantella,” playfully flicked her b-pluses than in her pirouettes from fifth.
Because of their experience, the pros were also able to save things in ways the students could not. When the teen pairs got out of sync, they had no choice but to hop a little or come out of things. In contrast, when ABT prima ballerina Christine Shevchenko went slightly off her axis in a finger turn, her partner Jacopo Tissi suavely steered her back to center. She turned all the while. Or Wagman again, this time in his classical hat, would simply flat foot some à la secondes in the “Flames of Paris” to realign and then get back up on relevé. (Though I should mention that the excellent Taylor O’Meara, 15, was already possessed of this resourceful calmness.)
On the quieter side, Claudia Mota and Constantine Allen demonstrated a mature, dramatic intensity in the romantic pas de deux from Angelin Preljocaj’s “Le Parc.” Though “Le Parc” was necessary as a high church example of contemporary choreography, its nuzzling, intimate vibe was not the greatest fit for this event. Similarly, Misseldine’s practically-perfect account of Bournonville’s “William Tell” solo seemed too demure for a YAGP throwdown. And next to pas like “Corsaire” and “Flames of Paris,” I was reminded of how elevated even Balanchine’s campiest works are. “Tarantella,” read more like “Liebeslieder Walzer” on this night. If you’re going to the circus, you want to see the lion tamers with their heads in the beasts’ mouths. And this is where the YAGP Gala knocked it out of the park. Shevchenko and Tissi were glorious in their mastery of the “Corsaire” hurdles. The long, flexible, and commanding Tissi was not making his NY debut as the program avowed (he performed here with the Bolshoi in 2017); but he would certainly be welcome back anytime.
But it was the “Flames” duo that really, er, set the house on fire. This Soviet showstopper pas, choreographed by Vasily Vainonen, starts where most codas leave off. The couple enters and immediately launches into side-by-side grand jeté zigzags. Can it even be called choreography? It’s more like a checklist of ballet booby traps. In their NYC debuts, Wagman, from the Bavarian State Ballet, and Evelina Godunova, from the Berlin State Ballet, absolutely crushed it. Wagman’s long diagonal of emboîtés and tours, ending in a double-double-triple tour sequence to the knee, garnered the most applause of the night. But there were more fireworks to come. The spectacle ended with a hodgepodge group finale in which the assorted stars did more chaotic passes of tricks. The competitive pyrotechnics went right into the bows. It was overkill, but why not? When you have that many stars aligned, you might as well go out with a hypernova.