118 dancers make the cut for USA International Ballet Competition

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Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Gisele Bethea, 2014 junior women’s gold medalist (now with American Ballet Theatre), and Michal Wozniak compete in the 2014 IBC in Jackson.

The video count edges north of 275, but two sets of eyes remain glued to the big TV screen in the Presidential Suite at The Westin Jackson. There, a ballerina glides across a studio floor with enough grace and musicality to merit the approval of top professionals.

“She’s gorgeous,” murmurs Susan Jaffe.

“She was great. No question. Stunning,” Wes Chapman agrees.

This dancer is likely a shoe-in for the 11th USA International Ballet Competition (IBC) in Jackson this June. Jaffe and Chapman, both former American Ballet Theatre (ABT) principals with dance leadership roles to boot, are the IBC selection committee, combing through hundreds of application videos to determine who dance fans will see on stage this summer.

The next wannabe competitor comes on screen, prompting comments about overdeveloped muscles and training. Chapman weighs in, “She has potential. But she needs to step it up a notch.”

Next? “Good … but …” from Chapman. And from Jaffe, “a little unkempt, but strong and pretty. I like her.”

They’ve been at it for two and a half days and lunchtime looms. Once the last dance is over, Chapman wheels around to smile sweetly at the IBC staff and ask, “Can we eat?” After the break, they’ll dig into deliberations.

The IBC debuted in Jackson in 1979, and in 1982 the city was designated the official home of the IBC by a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress. Held every four years and sanctioned by the International Theater Institute of UNESCO, the IBC in Jackson is considered one of the world’s most prestigious for its illustrious history, quality of judging and level of competition.

Photo by Richard Finkelstein

The encore curtain call from the 2014 Awards Gala shows 15 medalists representing eight nations.

June 10-23, the USA IBC will turn the ballet world’s attention to Jackson and turn the city into a two-week festival of dance as competitors from around the world vie for medals, thousands in cash awards, scholarships and company contracts over three rounds of classic and contemporary ballet.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

A thick three-ring binder holds the applications of hundreds of hopefuls for this summer’s USA International Ballet Competition.

The selection committee’s weekend at The Westin was the first culling. A total of 300-plus dancers from 27 countries applied to compete. The United States boasted the highest number of applicants, with Japan and South Korea next in line. Junior females (ages 14 to 18) made up the largest category.

“We have called that ‘the Gisele effect,’” says USA IBC’s Brenda Trigg, for 15-year-old Gisele Bethea’s 2014 gold medal win in Jackson.

The selection committee’s goal: evaluate the 289 video submissions (some apply as soloists, others as couples) to trim the list by about two-thirds, for 100 to 120 competitors.

“It is a pass or fail, basically,” says Mona Nicholas, USA IBC executive director.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

Susan Jaffe watches a dancer’s application video to determine who will make the cut for the 11th USA International Ballet Competition.

Jaffe and Chapman, who have known each other since they both were at ABT and who emceed the 2014 USA IBC together, credit that rapport for their quick work on this task. She’s the dean of dance at the North Carolina School of the Arts and he’s the dance chairman at the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham.

“We have similar jobs, and we do a lot of evaluation for young talent,” Chapman says.

Dancers’ artistry, musicality, physicality and technical skill are considered and scored in the process. It’s far from a slog, they say, though at one point they sat through 20 “Esmeralda” variations in a row.

“That gets a little monotonous,” Chapman says, but as judges of other types of ballet competitions, they’re used to such.

Photo by Sherry Lucas

The USA IBC selection committee uses score sheets to evaluate the dancers they view on application videos.

A litany of checkpoints race through their minds as they watch.

“We’re looking for their training. Are they coordinated? Are their muscles engaged correctly? Are they approaching the steps with clarity and precision? Are they able to support those steps with strength underneath it? Their port de bras, their use of the head and neck, how clean their footwork is …” Jaffe goes down the list.

“We’re from the same company. I think we have very similar tastes, and we very rarely disagreed on who should be in the competition.” she says.

“Typically, in my personal point of view, it’s rather obvious pretty quickly,” Chapman says. “There were a couple of times we’ve been proven wrong, where we look at additional solos, to see, to make sure, and then would back off and say, OK, this kid was right.”

They even admit to screaming a few times, unable to contain the thrill when a particularly skilled and strong dancer takes the screen. Jaffe, who has gotten the ultimate IBC preview, smiles. “I think it’s going to be a really exciting competition.”

At the end of the deliberations, 118 dancers (plus five noncompeting partners) were selected, representing 19 countries. Earlier this week, notifications were sent to applicants who didn’t make the cut. Invitations are now going out to the chosen 118.

The set includes 53 junior competitors (ages 14 to 18) and 65 senior competitors (ages 19 to 28); 20 are competing as couples and a few are returning competitors, Trigg says. Competitor names will be announced in the coming days.

Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Gisele Bethea, 2014 junior women’s gold medalist (now with American Ballet Theatre), and Michal Wozniak compete in the 2014 IBC in Jackson.

Among those invited are three gold medalists from last summer’s Moscow International Ballet Competition and a Grand Prix winner from the Youth America Grand Prix New York finals, who all applied to compete in Jackson.

USA IBC leaders met the medalists at the Moscow IBC.

“They all said, ‘Oh, we want to come to Jackson. We love Jackson!’” Nicholas says. “So, everybody knew Jackson.

“In the dance world, this is the competition they want to be a part of, because we’re known for our fairness and integrity. And it’s just a wonderful time for them to get together. Even if they’re eliminated, we invite them to stay,” take class, work with choreographer Mathew Neenan for a piece featured on awards night, and continue to network and be seen by company directors.

“Many of our competitors may not win a medal, but they will still get a job.”

USA IBC ticket packages are on sale now for the USA IBC, which includes the opening ceremony with a performance by dancers from the Joffrey Ballet, all three rounds of competition in classical and contemporary ballet and the awards gala. Individual tickets will be available starting March 19.