Observations on the Youth America Grand Prix

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Senior Men's winner Geon HeePark
Senior Men's winner GeonHee Park

Karen van Ulzen attended the 25th anniversary of the Youth America Grand Prix in New York. Below she offers some further observations on the standard of the dancing.

As can be imagined at a competition of 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, controlled extensions; and beautiful lines all 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 variations 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.

So what made some stand out from the others?

Winner of the Natalia Makarova Award: Viktoria Papakalodouka.
Winner of the Natalia Makarova Award: Viktoria Papakalodouka.


You might also call it personality, or charisma, or expressiveness, but sometimes that hard-to-define "dance" quality was missing. The technical accomplishment was excellent, but some contestants were more intent on dancing the steps correctly rather than expressing the movements through their whole body. As I'm sure their teachers have told them, dancing is not a matter of placing the body in the lines and shapes the choreographer intended; the dancer should dance as if they are compelled to move: they should bring the dance alive. They should also convey the mood or the character of their role. For example, in the men's senior section, amid the showstopper solos, it was the quieter, introspective performance by Carson Willey (17) from the US, who danced Siegfried’s soulful Act 3 solo from Swan Lake, which stayed in my memory. As a competitive solo this might appear to be a risky choice, as it doesn't have the technical fireworks of other solos, but his quality of feeling marked him out.

Of course, it is easy to forget that these contestants are still very young! Artistry will come with maturity.

Junior Men's winner, Keenan Mantzos
Junior Men's winner, Keenan Mantzos


All the dancers were hyper-mobile but the ones who stood out combined this flexibility with strength: steely legs; effortless hops on pointe; the ability to releve on one leg till the end of time. The really strong dancers almost leapt into their pose/pique turns. There was no room at this stage of the competition for tentativeness or hesitation. The dancers had to look entirely on top of their craft.

Which brings me to . . .


The ability to toss off multiple pirouettes is and has always been a hallmark of this competition. The South Koreans in particular seem to have mastered this feat. A neat double pirouette is the bare minimum – these contestants were doing four to five – and I'm talking about the girls! They were fearless! How do they do it?


I did not see the contemporary solos in these finals but I did see those in the Sydney finals and in previous iterations of YAGP. Since when did contemporary become acro? The contestants wear a slinky costume to show their lean lines and perform lots of contortionist and outlandishly extreme positions. It shows off their flexibility, but is not necessarily artistic. Acrobatic moves need to be combined with dance steps. A guest overseas adjudicator I spoke to at the Sydney competition confirmed my impression that these types of solos had become predictable and did not help to convey the contestant's interpretative or expressive abilities.

Former YAGP winners, Alisa Badenes and Friedemann, now Principal Artists with the Stuttgart Ballet, perform the pas de deux from John Nuemeier's 'Lady of the Camellia's at the 'Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow' Gala - Best of 25 Years.
Former YAGP winners, Alisa Badenes and Friedemann Vogel, now Principal Artists with the Stuttgart Ballet, perform the pas de deux from John Neumeier's 'Lady of the Camellia's at the 'Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow' Gala - Best of 25 Years.


Some of the men exploded onto the stage with awe-inspiring jetes. Thrilling! The charge of energy and effort is part of the thrill. But then there were also those who seemed to jump without effort – whose spring seemed to be inbuilt, who landed with a panther-like softness that belied the effort. This is another type of thrill to watch and was one of the qualities that marked out the overall winner – GeonHee Park (18). The only surprise about his win was that he is not already a professional. His school, the Korea National University of the Arts in South Korea, presented some of the most stunning competitors – in recognition of this achievement it was awarded the Most Outstanding School.

(As an aside: of late there has been decline in contemporary ballet choreography of petit batterie and quick light jumps in favour of high legs and super flexibility. I think this is a shame, as it leaves out a huge section of ballet technique as well as an important and unique ingredient of the classical repertoire, such as in Giselle. Surely quick small jumps still have choreographic interest?)

Tamasin Soppet, winner of the Junior Women's section.
Tamasin Soppet, winner of the Junior Women's section.

Scholarships and jobs

At the time of going to press, 111 scholarships and or professional jobs had been offered. The American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (ABT JKO) School made an amazing 31 offers altogether, while the John Cranko School of the Stuttgard Ballet in Germany made 11, the Princess Grace Academy in Monaco handed out 23 (one to Kasia Macdonald, from Papilio Atelier in NZ) and the Royal Ballet School, UK, made 11 offers, including a short term scholarship to Tamison Soppet. She also received a short term scholarship to the Zurich Dance Academy in Switzerland, while her compatriot, Hamish Giddens, received a full year scholarship to the same school. GeonHee Park received an internship with ABT Studio Company, a contract with the Czech National Ballet, and a full year's scholarship to the ABT JKO school!

In recognition of the success of the YAGP project, a resolution was passed in the US Congress "Recognizing the cultural and educational contributions of the Youth America Grand Prix throughout its 25 years of service as the national youth dance competition of the United States". A well deserved accolade!

See more reports on the event, including the lists of finalists and winners, here and here.




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