The handful of elite ballet competitions in this country and abroad are very different from their more mainstream counterparts. While some are geared toward professionals, others are primarily for students, for whom a win can be an important step toward success in a professional career. At the student level, preparing dancers to compete involves carefully assessing their technical and artistic capabilities, selecting an appropriate solo or variation from the classical repertory and coaching them on appropriate behavior and attitude.
At the end of the day, of course, it’s not the medals that count, but the opportunity for students to mature technically, artistically and emotionally as dancers. DT tracked down four teachers who both coach students and judge at some of the biggest competitions around the world to discuss proper training and how to help dancers make the most of their experience.
Evaluate Technique, Artistry & Presentation
There is no magic formula—and no set of requirements laid out by competitions—for determining if a student is ready to compete. Mikhail Tchoupakov, an assistant professor/lecturer in the University of Utah’s Department of Ballet, explains that students are not required to perform, say, five or six pirouettes as a prerequisite to compete. “It all depends on the competitor,” says Tchoupakov, who has worked for Youth America Grand Prix as an organizer, master teacher, choreographer and judge since 2000. “You can’t do more than your physical abilities allow you to do.”
After all, he notes, judges are looking for more than excellent technique. “At the student level, of course the judges want to see technique, but they’re also looking for potential,” says Tchoupakov. “A lot of these competitions are designed to find talent and develop it later” at a larger, more professional school.
Nevertheless, Sarah-Jane Measor, ballet director and co-owner of California-based Menlo Park Academy of Dance, does all she can to make sure her students are as competition-ready as possible. Measor, who took a number of ballet students to the YAGP in San Francisco earlier this year, requires that dancers meet a class attendance minimum before she invites them to enter a competition. Doing so helps ensure that they have the technique to support them throughout the rehearsal process and preparation.
Measor is also careful to ascertain if students have the requisite stage presence before allowing them to compete–a smart idea. Eleanor D'Antuono, artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition and resident coach for Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts, who has served on the judging panel at YAGP as well, explains that while judges will always be impressed by fine technique and line, quality of movement and professional presentation often win out. Presentation is also an important factor in the technique classes that students are required to take in addition to performing their variation. "They are judged on both, which is very good because classwork tells a lot. Anybody can practice a solo for hours and hours, but in class you can really see how they plie and how they approach exercises," says Measor.
Choosing the Best Solo
To select an appropriate variation or solo for a particular student, keep in mind his or her strengths, capabilities and weaknesses. If you don’t already have a strong relationship, observe the student taking class or get to know him or her in another way. “Look at the student honestly and see what suits them,” says Eleanor D’Antuono, artistic director of the New York International Ballet Competition and resident coach for Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. Speaking as a judge, she adds, “I am naturally going to look for something that the dancer can accomplish and shows them to their best.”
Regina Zarhina, an associate professor at UU’s Department of Ballet and Tchoupakov’s wife, echoes these sentiments. “Look at the student’s strength and show it off,” she says. “Try to hide the limitations.” When selecting a variation for a female student, Zarhina recommends avoiding principal variations, as they were generally choreographed on the best ballerinas of their time and therefore require a certain level of maturity and understanding of style. “Try to go for the secondary or soloist variations,” she suggests. Adds Measor, “The judges want to see students they’re good at, not what they can’t do. You’re not going to give a variation or a solo with a lot of pirouettes, for example, to somebody who doesn’t pirouette that well.”
It’s also crucial to preserve the historical accuracy of the choreography you are working with. Keep in mind that judges become irritated when they see classical variations altered or performed without sensitivity for the source material. “It’s a huge responsibility to have a student perform a classical variation,” explains Zarhina. “It’s something that’s been passed from generation to generation.” Tchoupakov attributes some of the faux-pas seen on competition stages—“wrong choreography,” “distasteful costumes”—to poor coaching. “It’s not the student’s fault,” he says. “It’s the teacher’s.”
Conveying the Right Attitude
If you’re entering a student in a ballet competition for the first time, “go with an open mind,” says Measor. Zarhina agrees, noting that it’s best to stay flexible and not be disappointed if things don’t turn out as you might have wanted. In other words, prepare to learn rather than to win.
D’Antuono stresses that the opportunity to train in a professional manner is the true take-home prize. “The real value is for the students to be working on something in a detailed fashion,” she says. “They get to go a step beyond, they find things in themselves, and they discover.” Tchoupakov encourages students view competition as “an experience, an extra chance to go onstage and an extra chance to see what level you’re compared to.”
Adds Measor, “in the grand scheme of things, the outcome is not important. It’s the journey.” DT
Alison Duke is a New Hampshire based dancer, teacher and writer who contributes to Pointe, Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.
About 80 miles north of Manhattan, in the quaint New England town of New Milford, Connecticut, you can find the buzz of Broadway. Under the direction of husband-and-wife team Scott Wise and Elizabeth Parkinson, both former Broadway stars, FineLine Theatre Arts aims to provide students with a top-notch—yet accessible—performing arts education. Just two years old, the studio now boasts roughly 250 students and alumni who have gone on to dance at North Carolina School of the Arts, Point Park College, University of the Arts and Mercyhurst College, as well as with such companies as MOMIX, Donald Byrd/The Group and Spectrum Dance Theater.
“We believe that the performing arts are fundamental to human expression and should be part of lifelong learning, and that the arts play a life-affirming role in our lives,” explains Parkinson. “FineLine Theatre Arts invites the entire community to fully participate in the central joys of living: acting, singing and dancing.”
Drawing from Experience
The school is a reflection of the pair’s experiences as performers, says Parkinson, who started studying ballet at age 13 in Tampa, Florida. Spending five summers at Joffrey Ballet intensives paid off when she joined Joffrey II and then danced with the main company for eight years. She also danced with Eliot Feld and Donald Byrd/The Group before making the transition to musical theater. Parkinson took theater dance classes with Chet Walker at Broadway Dance Center as well as Fosse workshops, which helped her land a part in the national tour of Fosse.
Raised in Pocatello, Idaho, Wise trained in acrobatics, jazz and ballet, but eventually shifted his focus to musical theater as well. He performed with Ballet Memphis and the Joffrey Concert Group before earning his first Broadway role in A Chorus Line in 1981 and going on to appear in 13 other Broadway shows and the film version of Chicago. A decorated veteran of the stage, Wise won a 1989 Tony Award for his role in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and was nominated for State Fair and Fosse. He also received an Astaire Award for his performance in Damn Yankees.
The two met while rehearsing for Fosse and married in 1999. They later worked together as cast members in Movin’ Out, on which Wise doubled as Twyla Tharp’s assistant. Parkinson received a 2003 Tony award nomination and an Astaire Award for her role as Brenda.
Putting aside their illustrious performance careers to open FineLine was a big decision for the couple. Yet they had reached a point where they were satisfied with their accomplishments and were increasingly interested in moving with their now 4-year-old son, James, to a quieter setting outside of New York City. Parkinson recalls thinking, “I’m really ready to share the joy that I have from my career.” Wise adds that the structure and pace of studio life is rewarding, if challenging: “Having the same group of kids each week is different from teaching a workshop,” he says. “You really have to teach the kids to dance. It’s a huge responsibility.”
Sharing the Knowledge
FineLine operates in a 3,000-square-foot facility comprising two dance studios and one music studio, offering classes in ballet, jazz, tap, musical theater, drama, acrobatics, body alignment and Pilates. Adult/teen entry-level classes are available in each discipline. Performance opportunities include an acting and two dance ensembles.
Parkinson teaches ballet, Wise teaches tap, and they both teach jazz. Former colleagues from the theater dance world come in to hold special workshops. In addition, FineLine inherited a renowned ballet staff when it absorbed students and teachers from the former School of Performing Arts, directed by Arlene Begelman, who now also instructs at FineLine. Wise says the ballet and acting departments have emerged as the school’s strengths. “You have to take ballet and acting if you’re going to be a performer on any level,” he explains.
Versatility is indeed a main focus of the studio. “The people who thrive [in show business] are the ones who are open to experiencing a lot of different things,” says Parkinson. “I want students to have as many options as they can.” In particular, she hopes to give them more opportunities than she was given: “There I was at the Joffrey, and I didn’t even know about the world of Broadway,” Parkinson recalls. “I really wish I had been exposed to singing and acting at a younger age. I appreciate the path I took, but I think I would have liked to have had a broader spectrum.”
Wise and Parkinson pride themselves on catering to individual students’ interests and strengths and identifying their goals. “Each one is custom-guided,” Parkinson says. Mary MacLeod, a former Fosse dancer and New York–based Broadway performer and dance instructor who frequently teaches theater dance classes at FineLine, attests to the pair’s ability to help students discover their personalities: “Scott and Liz connect well to these young people,” she says. “They really understand their individual students, which is fantastic. They make them feel safe to try and to trust.”
Planning for the Future
In the meantime, Parkinson looks forward to starting a nonprofit youth performing dance company, in addition to community outreach programs in local schools. “Our main goal is to have more performing,” says Wise.
For now, an all-discipline production is planned for June 2009. “It’s a little ambitious, but we’re going to do Bohemian Rhapsody,” based on the Queen song, says Parkinson. She and Wise, who is in charge of staging the production, will audition a local band of youth musicians to play in it. “We’re really excited about it because we’ll be able to incorporate a lot,” she adds. “It’s a great teaching tool—combining all of the disciplines.”
This summer, the couple also held their first annual two-week Musical Theatre Laboratory on Martha’s Vineyard, designed to expose serious musical theater students to the reality of working in the industry through a learning process that mimics the professional world of Broadway. They auditioned teens, ages 14 to 18, for 25 coveted spots in the summer session. The curriculum was similar to that of FineLine’s regular program, but included additional instruction in musical theater history, musical theater repertory, monologue study, audition techniques and writing.
Even though both directors are demanding, they take pains to offer corrections in a positive, nurturing way. “You have to make sure there’s joy in it,” says Wise, “because if you beat it out of the students, then they’ve lost any love for dance at all.” Adds Parkinson, “To be a success in this business, you have to have a passion for it and a really solid determination. I try to make students realize that hard work can be fun.” DT
Allison Duke is a New Hampshire-based dancer, teacher and writer who contributes to Pointe, Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines.