The last fan whooped. The last dancer bowed. Jury chairman John Meehan extinguished the USA International Ballet Competition flame with a magical wave of his hand, and 18 dancers from eight countries waltzed into the wings with medals and awards in Friday night’s climactic gala.

The Chinese duo Yunting Qiu and Sicong Wu dominated the awards just as they did each competitive round, picking up the senior women’s gold and the senior men’s gold medals ($12,000 each). Both dancers with National Ballet of China, the pair will also take home to China two choreography awards ($3,000) that jurors awarded to each of their compelling contemporary pieces, “Sad Birds” and “Permanent Yesterday.”

“It was two surprises,” Qiu said through translator Grace Chen afterward. “I never thought about getting the reward. I was just enjoying dancing on the stage.” Choreography winners in China still awaited news of their wins. “They will be very happy and excited,” Wu said through Chen, and they hoped to share the news once they returned to the Millsaps dorm late that night.

Republic of Korea senior pair Soobin Lee and Sangmin Lee (no relation), also strong crowd favorites, doubled up on medals as well, with silver medals ($7,000 each) plus the best couple award ($1,000 each). Happy and honored to be here, first of all, “joy is added up by the silver medals,” Sangmin Lee said through translator Ken Lee (also no relation). They expressed thanks to the vocal, enthusiastic audience that applauded and cheered on competitors — that’s the reason they dance, he said. “It’s such a good response, starting from the first round and continuing to the final gala.” Audiences go crazy about them at home, too. The details these dancers brought to “Don Quixote” and more — from the flashy, flirty eye contact to a flourish of the fingers — won fans and fervor. “We are discussing, always, what we have to do with every moment, to enrich the dances.”

Two senior women’s silver medals ($7,000 shared) were awarded Friday; American finalist Katherine Barkman, a principal dancer with Ballet Manila in the Philippines, won the other one. Joseph Phillips, well-known to Jackson ballet fans for his 2002 junior gold win here and more, was her noncompeting partner. “It’s been such a joy,” she said. Competitions can be difficult sometimes, and this had its trying moments, including dancing Round I with a 101-degree fever. “But I really enjoyed every single second onstage. There’s a finality to it, like we’ve accomplished something, but I also feel like it’s a beginning.”

man and woman ballet dancers at IBC
Joseph Phillips (noncompeting partner) and Katherine Barkman perform at the 2018 International Ballet Competition. Credit: Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Barkman said she’d never made it to the finals in international ballet competition before. “Something changed. I think that I stopped trying to dance to please anyone. And, I started to dance because it makes me really, really happy. And I just wanted to share that, onstage, with everyone in the audience, whether you were a judge, whether you were an aspiring dancer, whether you were a mom, a grandma, a grandpa.” If she could make people smile, happy, scream, get all excited, “that was my job.”

Chisako Oga, also representing the United States, won the senior women’s bronze ($5,000). A dancer with Cincinnati Ballet, she fit in rehearsals for competition on her lunch hour as the company’s season drew to a close. She came for the experience, the exposure and stage time, new people and a different environment. “Oftentimes, being in a company, I feel like we take our job for granted — the fact that we get to do what we love, for a living. I think sometimes we forget how much we actually love it … and being in a new setting like this really refreshes that idea.”

American David Shrenk’s contemporary dance “Creature,” with its electronic, percussive beat and moves that slid from sinuous to scurrying with remarkable ease, captivated the crowd one more time Friday, and he took home the senior men’s bronze ($5,000).

In the junior female division and this competition’s largest category, U.S. finalist Elisabeth Beyer was awarded the gold medal in Jackson ($6,000)— a shiny followup to her 2017 junior gold at the Moscow IBC. Two junior women’s silver medals ($4,000 shared) were awarded — to Carolyne Galvao of Brazil and Julia Rust of the U.S. Jurors also awarded two junior women’s bronzes ($2,000 shared), to Americans Tia Wenkman and Rheya Shano.

Shano said coming to the IBC “is so much more than the competing. It’s not about winning medals — of course, that’s great and it’s more than I ever could have expected — but it’s about the learning experience and growing as an artist and being able to perform onstage,” as well as seeing other talented competitors and working with dance pros.

Junior silver finalist Hyuma Kiyosawa performs his dance “Flames of Paris,” in Round 1 of the USA International Ballet Competition. Credit: Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Jurors awarded no junior men’s gold medal, which meant that Hyuma Kiyosawa’s junior silver ($4,000) was the top prize in his age bracket for 2018. The dancer from Japan, who stunned with powerful leaps and charmed with personality, achieved his goals of a medal and an offer from a company — Joffrey Ballet. The experience was the biggest takeaway, he said, and his six-month preparation for the IBC was just as important. “We build up to get these results. So, yeah, I’m really happy. … I was trying to get gold, but I don’t know,” he shrugged and grinned, “I won, basically! It was definitely a fun experience, and a fun competition.”

Jurors awarded two junior male bronze medals ($2,000 shared), to Joseph Markey and Harold Mendez, both of the U.S.

Additional cash awards included: jury awards for encouragement ($1,000) to Razmik Marukyan of Armenia, and Veronica Atienza and Nicole Barroso, both of the Philippines; the Robert Joffrey award of merit ($1,000) to Mya Kresnyak of Canada; the Project Tutu scholarship to help cover expenses ($3,475 from the silent auction of tutus) to Alexa Torres of the Dominican Republic.

All IBC finalists receive a cash award of $1,500 to help defray travel expenses, from the Peggy Mize Fund administered by the Community Foundation of Mississippi.

Audiences have one last chance to see 2018 IBC medalists dance, at tonight’s Encore Gala at Thalia Mara Hall, with live music from the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. Ticket availability is still good for the 7:30 p.m. show. For tickets, visit or the IBC box office at Thalia Mara Hall, or call 601-973-9249.

View a slideshow of photos from the final round of competition and the Awards Gala (All photos by Richard Finkelstein):

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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.