Is Extreme Technique Hurting Artistry? Competitions Are Exciting Showcases, but Do They Emphasize Tricks over Ballet's Finer Points? Coaches, Teachers, Judges, and Artistic Directors Weigh In
Alfaro, Nancy, Dance Magazine
Jumps soar higher and higher. Legs fly up to ears. And pirouettes routinely come in fours--or more. Audiences gasp with excitement, and standing ovations are now standard fare. Is this the Olympics, the circus, or just ballet in the era of competitions? Critics, dance teachers, artistic directors, and competitors had ample opportunity this year to debate the impact of competitions. The recently concluded USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, witnessed more virtuosity than ever before. So have renowned European competitions like Vama and the Prix de Lausanne, and newer competitions like Youth America Grand Prix.
While competitions are venues for discovering exciting young dancers, they are also a controversial topic among ballet's major players. The number of pirouettes a dancer does is quantifiable; how she flirts with her fan in Don Quixote is immeasurable. Judges confronted with Kitri variations need some basis for consistent evaluation. And this may explain why extreme technique has moved to center stage.
Artistry lies at the heart of the debate. Competitions emphasize perfecting an excerpt, not sustaining an entire performance. Steps are divorced from character or the piece's theme. Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet director Marcia Dale Weary feels many dancers who focus on learning variations for competitions are sacrificing artistry for technical prowess. She believes young dancers benefit more from being in the corps. "Working with other dancers as a team is what's necessary to artistic development," says Weary.
Nevertheless, many young dancers who compete say they learn a lot, and it polishes their performing skills. Seventeen-year-old Rock School student Kara Hanretty entered her first competition, Youth America Grand Prix, this past year. "In preparation, my teacher, Natasha Bar, would coach me almost every day for an hour, having me rehearse my variations over and over until every last detail had been corrected," she recalls. While Hanretty, who placed second in the senior women's contemporary division, admits competing can be stressful, she felt the experience helped her achieve a new facility. "I surpassed my limits," she says.
Not every teacher has Weary's approach, either. Stanislav Issaev, chair of the dance department at South Carolina Governor's School of the Arts and a well-respected competition coach, believes competitions help popularize ballet. "If a dancer sees someone do something technically amazing, and wants to do it, too, that advances the art form," he says.
Bo Spassoff, president and director of Pennsylvania's Rock School, is proud of his five students who won medals at the USA-IBC. "Today's dancers are amazing artists, and the technique bar has gone higher," he says. He believes this has made ballet a richer art form. "In some cases, more is more exciting," Spassoff says. "Dance is extremely compelling now because people can do different kinds of things."
When judging competitions, he looks for a combination of exceptionally clean technique and the ability to do things other dancers can't. "Judges are not unimpressed by that," he says. But he also says that he looks for what "grabs him" in a dancer. …