Forty-four dancers representing 11 countries move forward to Round II in the USA International Ballet Competition (IBC) this weekend in Jackson in a fierce artistic battle for gold and jobs.

The level of dance leaped as high as some of the strongest senior males in this event. “Those of us who have been on the jury of recent competitions found that the level here was higher than in many, many recent competitions,” International Jury chair John Meehan said. “It’s a very high level.”

After eight sessions of classical ballet spread over four days at Thalia Mara Hall, the 10 jurors deliberated about two hours to trim the field of 92 competitors from 17 nations, to the 44 semi-finalists. The results were posted around midnight Thursday at Millsaps College, where the competitors are housed.

Semi-finalists will compete with contemporary ballet selections in three sessions, 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Thalia Mara Hall. The IBC, a quadrennial ballet event in Jackson, was sanctioned as the official U.S. international ballet competition by a joint resolution of Congress in 1982.

In the IBC, dancers come from around the world to compete before a jury of dance dignitaries as well as an audience peppered with ballet company directors and scouts, for medals, cash awards, scholarships and company contracts. Tickets are still on sale at and the IBC box office at Thalia Mara Hall.

In the numbers/nations breakdown going into Round II: USA has 20 dancers; Japan, 9; Republic of Korea, 4; Philippines, 2; China, 2; Cuba, 2; Mongolia, 1; Great Britain, 1; Canada, 1; Cuba, 1; Armenia, 1. The semi-finalist count includes: 11 senior males; 9 senior females; 9 junior males; and 15 junior females. Seniors are 19-28 years old; juniors are 14-18 years old. The junior female category, largest group at the outset, was particularly strong and jurors noted much potential.

“I personally loved the quality of the senior females, and in my mind there were many that were fantastic,” Meehan says. “When we looked at all of the people that rose to the top of the marks, it really was strong in all four areas, and that is very gratifying.”

Eliminated dancers still have an opportunity to perform their contemporary selections in the Edward Stierle Contemporary Showcase, 6 p.m. June 18 at Belhaven University Center for the Arts.

Among the semi-finalists are many who got rave ratings in crowd roars and applause this week at Thalia Mara Hall, including: Chinese dancers Yunting Qui and Sicong Wu, whose heartbreaking, haunting “Giselle” pas de deux was reminiscent of the 2002 Chinese duo who took gold and silver in 2002; U.S. competitor Katherine Barkman sparkled strong in a “Don Quixote” pas de deux with noncompeting partner Joseph Phillips, despite an early fall; South Korea’s Soobin Lee and Sangmin Lee, whose “Don Quixote” pas de deux blazed through Wednesday night with hot connection and plenty of sparks; Japan’s Rieko Hatato, whose “Esmeralda” and “Don Quixote” variations charmed Monday night fans. Download the complete list of winners here.

Jurors score dancers on a 1 to 10 scale, and this year used half-marks, which were helpful in evaluations, Meehan said. Jurors judge dancers on technique, artistry, musicality, physicality and presence.

Chinese ballet performers at IBC
Sicong Wu and Yunting Qui of China perform “Giselle” in this year’s IBC. Credit: Photo by Richard Finkelstein

If a dancer falls onstage, there’s no automatic deduction. “We’ve all danced, and many of us have fallen — if not all of us,” Meehan said. “Hands up, who’s fallen onstage?” Reluctantly, fellow jurors’ hands inched up. “OK, so we all have. Honestly, I don’t think that takes away from marks, unless it’s a real technical flaw that’s responsible, and we can see that.”

Juror Trinidad Vives of Spain acknowledged that it’s difficult to score artistry; natural presence and charisma count. “There are 10 jurors and there are going to be some dancers that you like more, for whatever reason they touch you more than other dancers. … It’s important that they have a presence, that they show the art form and that they understand the role that they’re performing, so it’s not just technique and steps.”

Meehan said, “As jurors, we all wanted to include as many dancers as possible,” but a cutoff is necessary, to move quality forward but also have enough time to prepare, for dancers and stage crews, for the next competitive round.

He anticipated that 28-30 dancers will move on to the finalist round June 19-21.

“Based on what we’ve seen, I think it’s going to be an amazing last three days.”

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Sherry Lucas is a veteran feature writer in Jackson whose stories spread the word on Mississippi's food, arts, culture and communities. A lifelong Mississippian and University of Mississippi graduate, Lucas has decades of daily newspaper experience. She is now a freelance writer and contributes regularly to Mississippi Today.