The Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition has grown from its creation in 1999 to become the number one dance competition in the world. Thousands of dancers around the world (7,000 + according to the gala program) compete in regional events in 15 U.S. cities as well as in Belgium, Brazil, Mexico, Japan and Argentina for the right to come to New York City and perform their showpieces in front of a jury of professionals. They are competing for precious scholarships that open doors pretty much everywhere around the world. Ballet conservatives decry dance competitions, believing that they commodify art and encourage youngsters to resort to flashy tricks rather than relying on a sound foundation of classical technique. The good news for those alarmed conservatives is that the YAGP is consistently rewarding youngsters for artistry, as well as extraordinary technical ability. The young dancers were phenomenal and sometimes jaw-droppingly so.

Yu Kurihara © Siggul/ VAM
Yu Kurihara
© Siggul/ VAM

Former YAGP competitors are now in leading companies worldwide. Canny artistic directors are now very much present at these events to scout the talent. Ballet West’s Adam Sklute got the jump on everyone and picked up the rising star, Beckanne Sisk, while he was judging the competition. She could easily have ended up in any major company. The annual gala that finishes off the competition puts together a first act culled from the top competitors while the second act brings together dancers from previous years who are now leading professionals around the world.

Opening the show was diminutive 11 year old Antonio Casalinho of Portugal delivering the male variation from the Don Q pas de deux. He was a winner in the pre-competitive division. When he whipped a fouetté into four turns in attitude I could only shake my head as my jaw dropped. He turns like a little top. This is not the way it was when I was a kid. He’s not yet able to cover a lot of space but he moved with astonishing fluidity. Okay, the tricks… but how did he dance? The answer is beautifully. He was poised, confident and magnetic. Is he a future star? Who knows; it’s much too early to tell. But this competition assures that he’ll be able to continue his dance studies with a scholarship.

Juliette Bosco and Theophilus Pilette were lovely in the pas de deux and coda from Grand Pas Classique. My jaw continued to drop at the elegant assurance of 12 year old Bosco who had the carriage and maturity of a much older dancer. There’s nothing of the child left about this young woman. Shin-Yong Kim from Korea danced the variation from Esmeralda with iron strength and control. Her enveloppés on pointe would be the envy of any professional. Time and again she hit her turns and balances with complete assurance and confidence. You could tell how much she enjoys performing. Shin-Yong Kim is 14 now so don’t expect to see her on the professional stage for a couple more years but it won’t be long. Kenedy Kallas has feet so extraordinary that it was actually hard to focus on the pas de deux, Who is my Shadow?, that she performed with Austen Acevedo.

Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood © Siggul/ VAM
Melissa Hamilton and Eric Underwood
© Siggul/ VAM
18 year old Shogo Hayami is from Japan and studies now in Stuttgart. His Solo for Diego was a piece showed off his versatility, venturing outside classical ballet into a remarkably fluid contemporary style. He’s a great dancer who is thrilling to watch and it was no mystery why he took the gold medal in the men’s competition. There was a real performance here by a serious young artist who gave emotional depth to his work.

The women’s competition was taken by another Japanese dancer named Yu Kurihara, aged 16. Kurihara’s technique was probably the most fully developed of all the dancers. She was not just holding her balances coming down off pointe with perfect control. She didn’t just have terrific flexibility and beautiful line. She had more than just perfectly executed pirouettes. This young ballerina moved with grace and ease that were pure joy to watch. She radiated the joy of dancing. There really wasn’t anything she did that you could point at and say that it needed more work. Forget about the naysayers who think that competitions are ruining dancers. It isn’t true.

The first act closed with a number that’s called the Grand Defilé, choreographed by Carlos dos Santos. It is probable that this is the greatest number of dancers ever assembled on stage for one ballet. Every last one of the finalists was on stage, more than 325 according to the program. I couldn’t begin to count them all. Mostly it’s a mishmash of classroom combinations designed to give everyone some stage time. They dash on, they fly off, first the girls, then the boys, run, jump, spin, a little Busby Berkeley interlude, more running around. It’s such a mess but it makes them all so happy that I can’t bring myself to say anything bad about it - though I should.

The professional dancers in the second act were great but they weren’t the reason for this night. Some of the choreography was forgettable. It’s a virtual certainty that not many must be looking forward to the next performance of the pas de deux from The Pharaoh’s Daughter, danced by Bolshoi’s Evgenia Obraztsova and Semyon Chudin. Tess Reichlen and Zachary Catazaro made sure New York City Ballet was adequately represented in a piece by Emery LeCrone.

Kim Kimin and Isabella Boylston © Siggul/ VAM
Kim Kimin and Isabella Boylston
© Siggul/ VAM
We got our first look at the Royal Ballet’s extraordinary Melissa Hamilton, partnered by Eric Underwood. There was the really lovely partnership of ABT’s Calvin Royal III and the Mariinsky’s Kristina Shapran. Mariinsky’s Xander Parish was arguably the hit of the night in the amusing solo, Ballet 101, with Isabella Boylston and Kim Kimin in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire running a close second. Paloma Herrera’s video tribute gave her the chance to express how much she just wanted to dance as a girl and how thankful she was for all that has happened to her through an illustrious career that is drawing to a close very soon. It was simple, beautiful and heartfelt. The professionals were a bonus in this show but the night belonged to the young dancers who are the future of ballet around the world.