When Leonid and Adriana Kozlov founded the Youth Dance Festival of New Jersey six years ago, their goal was to foster artistry, not anxiety.
In keeping with this spirit of encouragement, every dancer receives a certificate of merit and written evaluations from the judges. The festival’s competition winners are awarded medals and scholarships, but the Winners’ Showcase, which wraps up the event, features performances by award winners and non-winners alike, as well as special guest performers. At prior festivals, these have included dancers from Buglisi Dance Theatre, Battleworks Dance Company and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, as well as past competition winners such as April Giangeruso of American Ballet Theatre and Whitney Jensen of Boston Ballet.
“Even the kids who walk away without any special recognition leave feeling good about their performance,” Adriana Kozlov says. “From experiences that we had going to some other competitions, we could see how petrified the kids were and how the atmosphere was not beneficial for them. We started our festival to make it a joyful experience. We create a warm atmosphere for the participants, and a lot of them become friends. People are always cheering for each other in the wings.”
The annual festival is hosted by Kozlov Dance International, a Ridgewood, NJ–based dance studio founded by former Bolshoi and New York City Ballet principal dancer Leonid Kozlov. The event attracts about 200 young dancers from across the country each year.
This year’s festival takes place October 9–10 at the Berrie Center for Performing and Visual Arts of Ramapo College in Mahwah, NJ. Participants compete in three age categories—Division I (9–11), II (12–14) and III (15–25)—in classical ballet, contemporary, jazz and folk dance. In addition to competing, the dancers share the stage for workshops in ballet, modern and jazz.
The all-star lineup of workshop leaders and adjudicators includes Christine Dakin, former artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, Juilliard faculty member Hector Zaraspe and Carolyn Clark, artistic director of New Jersey Ballet. Dance luminaries participating in years past have included jazz master Luigi and English National Ballet principal dancer Katherine Healy.
When it comes to judging performances, the adjudicators are more interested in aesthetics than tricks, says Adriana Kozlov. “Of course they want to see people who are studying and have technique, but they also look beyond that for artistry and expression,” she says.
The return of past winners to perform is one of the highlights of the festival. “I think it’s really nice for the kids to see that continuity,” Kozlov says. “Even those who have received gold medals still come back every year to participate. It’s nice to see them grow and develop.”
Students may register independently or through their dance schools. For more information, visit www.ydfofnj.org.
Michelle Vellucci is a freelance writer in New York City.
Photo: Le Corsaire pas de deux by Catherine Whiting, NJ School of Ballet, and Albert Davydov, NJ Ballet. (by VAM Productions, courtesy of Adriana Kozlov)