• Jessica Cooper.
    Jessica Cooper.
  • Tamison Soppet.
    Tamison Soppet.
  • Summer Edgley. Photo by 6.5 Photography.
    Summer Edgley. Photo by 6.5 Photography.
  • Hamish Giddens.
    Hamish Giddens.
  • Kasia Macdonald.
    Kasia Macdonald.

Karen van Ulzen reports on the 25th Youth America Grand Prix in New York.

The Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Since its founding by Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev it has grown into the biggest student dance competition in the world. It has played a huge part in the fortunes of numerous talented dancers. Before YAGP, a child in, say, Brazil, or indeed Australia, may never have had the opportunity to be seen by, say, a director from Paris. Thanks to YAGP, such unlikely introductions have become a possibility.

To date, YAGP has boosted the careers of more than 500 dancers and awarded about $US5 million in scholarships. That's quite a legacy!

Because of the way the competition is structured, it is about more than just winning top prizes or bundles of cash. The judging panel is made up of directors of the world's major companies and schools. They not only decide on the winners; they are representatives of their organisations and come looking for talent. This effectively makes the event one big audition. On the one hand the dancers are competing for places; on the other the judges are also competing amongst each other for the dancers. They "pitch" for talent. As a result, some dancers find themselves in the enviable position of having to choose between several offers!

YAGP is not the first to use this model - the prestigious Prix de Lausanne was founded in 1973 and has a similar prize system. But thanks to YAGP's founders' unflagging energy and drive, the American competition has become the biggest and best known, with heats held in many different countries. Its impact on the ballet world can't be underestimated, as was evident in this year's anniversary celebrations. Not one but two anniversary galas are being held at the Lincoln Centre in New York, with former YAGP winners starring as guest artists. What a thrill to see the banners promoting the competition on the walls of the David Koch Theatre in Lincoln Square!

I attended the first gala last night. Called "Stars of Today meet Stars of Tomorrow", it opened with affectionate and heartfelt tributes from YAGPs many alumni and associates, all testifying to the life-changing impact YAGP had on their careers.

But first to this year's competition, which was held in the week before the galas. 545 contestants were invited to NY for the Junior and Senior soloist competition, with 127 making it to the finals: 63 juniors (between 12 and 14) and 64 seniors.

Of the 13 Australian contestants, two progressed to the finals, Jessica Cooper (14) from Classical Coaching Australia and Summer Edgley (16), from BMC Coaching Australia). Both chose the solo from Paquita. Four of the six New Zealanders also progressed to the finals: Kasia Macdonald (13), from Papilio Atelier in NZ, who demonstrated lovely ballon in her Willam Tell solo; Tamison Soppet (13) from Convergence Dance Studios, who performed the sweet Fairy Doll solo; Lauren Wycherley (15), from Papilio Atelier, who performed Grand Pas Classique solo; and Hamish Giddens (16) from Convergence, who performed Siegfried's solo from Act 3 of Swan Lake.

As can be imagined at this level, the standard of all the finalists was consistently and impressively high. Each soloist performed a classical solo from the ballet repertoire (their contemporary ballet solo having been presented in earlier rounds.) Grooming and costuming were immaculate, physiques ballet-perfect, technique finely honed and sometimes truly impressive: totally secure multiple pirouettes, high extensions and beautiful lines par for the course. Differences in ability between the contestants were often more a matter of their age and development rather than their talent – even in a restricted age group of 12 to 14 there can be big differences in growth, particularly among the boys. In the Seniors Men section, for instance, the age ranged from 15 to 20, and as the competition progressed, the standard of the dancing just kept getting higher, till the audience was gasping at the brilliance of what they saw.

How on earth will the judges make their choice? We will find out at the awards ceremony, held on stage at the Lincoln Centre on Saturday at 1.30pm US time. Stay tuned to Dance Australia for the results!

* This year 2000 dancers from 30 countries attended the event in total (including group division and younger ages sections.) 

Ed's note: I regret there was no photo of Lauren Wycherley available at the time of going to press.

See the full list of Australian and NZ contestants here.





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