For three evenings in a row – April 26th, 27th, and 28th 2012 – the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center in NYC was the venue for performances that concluded this year's Youth America Grand Prix. Launched in 1999 by two former Bolshoi Ballet dancers, Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev, YAGP has mushroomed into the world’s largest student ballet scholarship competition, awarding over $250,000 annually in tuition to the leading dance schools on the planet.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of dance competitions of any ilk. As I wrote in an article for ThirdAge.com: "In the classical ballet world, the increasing emphasis on show-off tricks in such events as Youth America Grand Prix has spawned a generation of amazing technicians who generally lack essential artistry." I was not proved wrong on Thursday during the YAGP kick-off event, the open-to-the-public final rounds of the competition. After an inexcusable 20-minute wait for the curtain to rise, the elaborately-costumed young dancers vying for medals and scholarships executed such staples as variations from Don Quixote, Esmeralda, Paquita, and Le Corsaire to the hoots and hollers of their adolescent fans. Every multiple pirouette, every freakishly high extension of a leg, every new-fangled version of a male leap, elicited raucous responses loud enough to drown out the music.
This unseemly and saddening behavior, so out of place in so revered a setting, continued on the following night during the "Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow" gala. In fact when Alicia Amatrian and Friedemann Vogel of the Stuttgart Ballet treated us to a moving rendition of the pas de deux from Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet," the pyrotechnic junkies in the audience were clearly confused. They tried to scream approval on a couple of occasions for the lifts, but eventually they fell silent and squirmed or chattered among themselves until the un-circuslike offering was over. My balletomane's heart broke when the hosts, Ana Gasteyer and Brian d'Arcy James, proclaimed that YAGP shows us "the future of ballet." I certainly hope not. Teachers of the world, listen up. Give your students something besides technique and make sure they learn proper theater manners or the art of ballet as we know it will die.
Oh, and a note to the Savalievs or whoever was responsible for Friday night's programming: Gasteyer and James couldn't have been worse choices as hosts. Their crude jokes and bumbling readings of performers' names were nothing but painful interruptions that cheapened the evening. The one saving moment during their embarrassing exchanges happened when Gasteyer ignored the planned banter and remarked with genuine awe that she had never seen anything like the Grand Defilé with hundreds of youngsters performing as a flawless ensemble. She said something to the effect that her own children are hard to control and then added, "But these little ballet kids, they just come in here and do what they're told!" I'm relieved to hear that at least that much of ballet's tradition of discipline and dedication is still being passed on to the new crop of hopefuls. And she was right. The Defilé really was a joy to see.
Another mistake on Friday was the last-minute addition of a steamy tango danced by Karina Smirnoff of TV's "Dancing With the Stars" and retired ABT principal José Manuel Carreño. Commercial dancing looked out of place on this bill and Ms. Smirnoff herself was obviously uncomfortable during the final curtain call. With her showgirl body, she looked like someone from another planet in the line-up of ballerinas and she knew it. Not only that, but when James announced the tango -- unaccountably comparing Smirnoff and Carreño to the iconic partnerships of Fonteyn and Nureyev and Kirkland and Baryshnikov –- he shouted "Who here is a fan of 'Dancing With the Stars'?" and was greeted with absolute silence followed by a polite ripple of applause. Wrong crowd for that question, people.
Yet all of my complaints notwithstanding, YAGP more than redeemed itself on Saturday evening with "Ballerina Assoluta: Gala Tribute Honoring the Legendary Natalia Makarova." There was artistry in abundance as today's most celebrated ballerinas from around the globe paid tribute to Natasha by dancing her signature roles. The professional men who danced were the world's best as well. The sold-out house was filled with grown-ups who knew how to appreciate what they were watching and who felt no need to punctuate every performance by yelling and stomping.
Unfortunately, the kids from the previous evenings who could have garnered a lesson in what ballet is really all about were not there. I wish they could have heard the wisdom of Bejart during a filmed retrospective of Makarova's life and career. He noted that every director sees a dancer in the corps who is as good or better technically than the ballerina but "She is not a ballerina." He explained that although the word "diva" has gained an almost satirical connotation over the years, it means "goddess" in Italian and that a true ballerina is in fact a divinity. To quote myself from another ThirdAge article, "For the record, while even tiny girls taking pre-ballet classes are now referred to as 'ballerinas,' the term used to be bestowed only on accomplished professionals. There were ballerinas and prima ballerinas. The top of the line was a prima ballerina assoluta."
And one of those rare ones, as the title of Saturday's gala makes clear, was Natalia Makarova. When she came on stage at the end for a bow, looking resplendent at 71, we all rose to our feet to give her a well-deserved standing ovation for everything that she has contributed to ballet over the years. The other ballerinas laid their flowers at her feet. Then David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes lifted her high above their heads –- just where a goddess belongs.