This international competition is like no other, writes former laureate winner and adjudicator Emma Sandall.
The 43rd Prix de Lausanne took place in February at Theatre de Beaulieu, a large theatre in upper Lausanne, Switzerland. Here the snow falls and lies in frozen clumps around trees, in gutters, on car roofs. Each year the theatre's backstage halls are transformed for one week into warm-up areas and studios for around 70 dancers between the ages 15 and 18 who fly in from all over the world.
This year there was very little contention about the finalists and winners – not often the case in an artistic competition. But each and every one of the finalists displayed unique qualities which captivated the audience, and they all danced themselves proud.
Australia was well represented with four dancers in the finals. America boasted seven. South Korea and Japan had three each; Switzerland, Norway and Portugal one. It was remarked that the Anglo Saxon quota was a little weighty, but all were deserving.
Each year, how the six “Prix” awards are divided between apprenticeships and scholarships is at the jury’s discretion. This year they awarded six scholarships. They went to Harrison Lee from Australia, Jisoo Park from South Korea, Mitsuru Ito from Japan, Miguel Pinheiro from Portugal, Rina Kanehara from Japan, and Julian MacKay from the United States.
Nobody was surprised by Harrison’s gold. Throughout the week he generated a hum. It is not often you see such a young dancer (15 years of age) with such extraordinary technique and focus. On top of this comes a beautiful, humble demeanour. Harrison is a listener. A worker. And these quiet qualities, the jury, teachers and directors know, will help to pave a successful career.
Jisoo Park and Rina Kanehara were accurate, consistent, and sparkling performers. Rina’s Giselle variation emanated pure delight.
Mitsuru Ito, who has been training at the Conservatorio Nacional in Lisbon, Portugal, danced with a grace and style which stayed with you after the event like a long, pleasurable note – a sign that he is a dancer we will want to watch in the future.
Julian MacKay danced with presence all week long. In both the studio and on the stage his Bolshoi background was evident. Such good training is apparent when observed closely in these two situations.
Miguel Pinheiro, who was awarded the contemporary prize as well as a scholarship, showed maturity and understanding of movement which set him apart. He was the one finalist to take the contemporary variation from clusters of moving shapes to full physical expression.
I am fond of the Prix de Lausanne. I competed in 1994 and won a scholarship, and the experience has helped me on my journey in ways I would never have imagined. I was connected to a network which has proved significant throughout my life and career from company dancer, to choreographer/director, teacher, Prix de Lausanne jurist and writer.
I’m fond of this competition because of Lausanne itself. The place, its history, the fact that I lived there during my time with the Béjart Ballet, and that this is a city which intrinsically supports and promotes dance like no other I’ve lived in or visited. Whether this is due to the number of artists who have resided there over the years or is something inherent in Lausanne itself I could not say.
Stephane Lagonico, the new president of the Prix, surmises that Lausanne has drawn artists due to its geographical location and beauty. “They feel that when they’re in Lausanne they’re in the middle of everything and yet secluded and in a pristine environment.”
I arrived in Lausanne at the age of 16 and immediately felt this sensibility. Dance was palpable in the air. And for a young dancer from Australia, that was quite something to sense.
Ballet, of course, was born in Europe. It is an integral part of its culture. Pink tights, pointe shoes and sparkling tiaras in gold-gilded theatres have been part of European fantasy and art since Louis XIV. I had the good fortune in 2000 to dance in Le Petit Théâtre de la Reine at Versailles built for Marie Antoinette in 1780. There you fully comprehend a world where this art form developed – its fragility, lavishness and exactitude.
Following that lineage, the Prix de Lausanne, a competition promoting and supporting young ballet dancers, is an important annual event. It is as important today as it was when Philippe and Elvire Braunschweig started it in 1973.
Two minutes up the hill from Beaulieu by foot, Michel Gascard, a laureate at the very first Prix de Lausanne, runs Rudra, the Béjart Ballet school, where he teaches not just Béjartien principles of dance, but also the ethics upon which the Prix de Lausanne itself is based – that potential is nothing without work, effort and the discipline to see it through; that dance is endurance; that shapes and moves are gymnastics if not interpreted through the soul.
Sylviane Bayard, also a laureate at the first Prix de Lausanne and former director of the Deutsch Opera Ballet Berlin, was on this year’s jury along with three other Prix de Lausanne laureates: Ethan Stiefel (1989), former principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre and former director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet; Chi Cao (1994), principal dancer of the Birmingham Royal Ballet; and Lisa-Marie Cullum (1988), principal dancer with the Bayerisches Staatsballett, Munich. All would attest to those hard and rewarding steps that a dancer makes transforming potential into a professional career.
The five other jury members were Cynthia Harvey, former principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Ballet; Simona Noja, director of the Wiener Staatsoper Ballet Academy, Vienna, Austria; Lidia Segni, director of the Ballet of the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, Argentina; Gyorkgy Szakaly, rector of the Hungarian Dance Academy, Budapest, Hungary; and Franco de Vita, artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, New York, USA.
Amanda Bennett, Prix de Lausanne artistic director since 2013, balances the jury choice between school and company directors, professional dancers and choreographers drawn from the four corners of the globe. This is important in terms of fair representation and in understanding the cultural differences of the candidates themselves. Since her time as director, Bennett has been consistently impressed by the jury’s objectivity at this competition with regard to each candidate.
Lagonico believes that Switzerland itself plays a role in this fairness. “Lausanne has a very long history of hosting the Sports Federation, the Olympic Committee, and there’s a tradition of ethics, of professionalism, of fairness and open mindedness in all these disciplines. If you add on top of that the Swiss coating – they want to do things fairly, on a level playing field, they’re welcoming of others, they’re respectful.” These are valid points and a competition will only survive in an environment or a society with the cleanest, the purest of values and ethics. The Prix de Lausanne has lasted 43 years. It is the oldest competition of its kind.
Of 67 registered candidates from more than 200 DVD applicants this year, 20 were selected for the finals. The selection process is a long and careful one. From Monday to Friday during the week of the competition, the candidates are observed by the jury during their classes and on stage in both their classical and contemporary variations. They are marked four times prior to the finals and each mark bears 25% of the pre-selection result, equally evaluating behavior and receptiveness in the studio with prepared stage performance. This is exceptional in that it is not all about a finished product, but about potential.
Jason Beechey, one of the Prix’s Artistic Collaborators, describes what they seek as “something that could grow, could develop, could flourish”. The reason it is important to watch students of this age over time and in different situations is that “potential” has a flipside. Sometimes, for example, someone stays a “potential”. Their potential never comes to fruition. “It is not a guaranteed thing,” Beechey adds, “it’s fragile”.
Over the week of the Prix, the jury has the time and opportunity to assess the qualities which really do show a dancer’s true potential – not just to be a good dancer, but the potential to realise their potential.
Early in the week of judging I spoke to Patrick Armand, the boys’ teacher and coach. What concerns Patrick is a mistaken approach to competitions. He worries that certain competitions encourage teachers to base their entire training on two solos, and he is exhausted by what he describes as a lack of respect for the choreography where he sees students who just do the steps they can do. “Because you can pirouette, then you are just going to do an entire solo pirouetting to get the applause. I don’t want to see it anymore,” he says.
It is certainly sad to see these beautiful solos devoid of their “raison d’etre”. My personal gripe is indulging a student’s facility irrespective of the dance surrounding this facility. Take for example the Lilac Fairy variation. It is all very well for a student to have loose hip joints and hamstrings enabling great extensions. But that is not the reason for the solo. I would argue that a student ought not be given this variation if she does not have the maturity to embed the extensions in the dance. Expression must shine through a dancer’s facility, not be crushed or stifled by it.
This problem starts in the classroom. “A step is done properly only when the approach and the finish are going to give it a reason. We are not training circus ponies. We are training dancers,” reminds Armand.
The Prix itself is evolving with the times. The classes of this year’s contemporary teacher, Tamas Moricz, pushed the young dancers to approach movement in new and challenging ways both physically and philosophically. The classes were based on improvisation techniques and ideas which required the dancers to use their imagination and concern themselves less with finished gestures and more with the exploration of form and movement. They were pushed to play, to test themselves and to lose themselves in the creation of a dance. Today, in most companies, individuality and courage are sought-after qualities which inspire choreographers and directors and bring something new to old forms. Ultimately, assisting ballet’s evolution.
“Contemporary coaching is usually the most revealing phase,” Beechey affirms. “Then you can see who the candidates are as people. Who’s a thinker. Who’s applying. It’s usually when you see their most personal aspects.”
Interestingly, as I watched this year’s competition I too noticed a marked difference between the genuineness in the dancers’ approach to their classical and to their contemporary variations. I saw a disconnect between movement and meaning in their classical work; whereas they were able to imbue their contemporary work with an individuality and expression which felt real. I wonder if this is a societal and generational shift in relating to the music and to the roles of the ballerina, princess and her prince?
Beechey feels similarly. “It is a shame if when they wear a tutu you don’t see their humanness. Then there’s a problem with how they’re thinking about ballet. I think you can wear a tutu and be completely vital and alive and fresh and dynamic or fragile. It doesn’t have to become stilted and jilted and cardboard.”
All the candidates at the Prix, and their teachers and their families, profit from the week-long experience. Although of course it is nice to be rewarded, this competition is not all about winning. It is about exposure, introductions, learning and growing. Australian candidate Olivia Betteridge told me it was one of the best weeks of her life. I remember it the same way.
Stephane Lagonica has grand visions for the Prix de Lausanne: “It’s very rewarding to receive a scholarship or apprenticeship but we would not want to miss out on certain candidates who are so good that nobody in their entourage would think that the Prix would do them any good … I would like every incredible professional to be a Prix de Lausanne.”
- Emma Sandall