Ballet is having a “moment.” In fact, dance in general is on a high right now in terms of public awareness. Competition shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars air alongside highly popular dramas and reality shows. Even Glee features choreography of a sort. While movies tend to focus on urban dance (The Step Up films, for example), the Oscar-nominated 2010 film Black Swan drew fresh fans to the world of ballet. (Never mind the fact protagonist Natalie Portman is slowly going insane throughout the course of the film).
Despite all the on-screen love for dance, performing arts budgets are at record lows across the globe, and scoring one of the few available gigs as a professional dancer is extremely difficult. Enter the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), an international ballet competition now in its 13th year. It offers young dancers the opportunity to perform before those who might hire them or provide career-making scholarships. Founded by Russian immigrants/dancers (and long-time Bergen Country residents) Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev, YAGP’s goal is to connect aspiring dancers with judges and scouts from ballet schools and companies around the world. Both Larissa and Gennadi were members of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow before coming to the United States.
From Russia With Love
“We moved to America from Russia 16 years ago, and I was starting to teach. I was also looking for other opportunities,” says Larissa Saveliev. “I was looking for outlets where I could see what others were doing, including dance competitions. There were a lot of opportunities for jazz and contemporary, but nothing for ballet. I thought, ‘how could that be?'” Larissa and her husband (a soloist with New York’s prestigious American Ballet Theater) began putting together the not-for-profit YAGP competition, “and it took off literally from the moment we started. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Ballet & YAGP
Children from ages 9 to 19 compete for awards, scholarships and dance contracts totaling over $250,000. For competition purposes, soloists are divided into age categories and by gender, each performing brief pieces in both classical and contemporary ballet styles. Overall Grand Prix winners in the senior (over 15) and junior categories can be either gender. Most seeking a professional career in ballet, the students are serious; they’re the kind of young athletes who train several hours each day and seek out the best instructors they can afford.
“Ballet is such a specific, technical category of dance,” says Gennadi. “It’s important these dancers get the chance to be seen and compete, to advance their careers.” For many—particularly those from small communities or without endless resources (performance costumes alone can run into the thousands of dollars, and $70 pointe shoes must be replaced weekly, if not daily)—these sorts of competitions may be their only chance to be discovered by academic institutions and professional companies.
Though it got its start in New York, YAGP is now an international phenomenon. Over 5,000 kids compete in some 20 preliminary competitions around the world (including 12 events in the U.S.). The field is narrowed to just fewer than 200 for the finals, which take place each year in New York. Many contestants return year after year, as long as they qualify. Thousands of hours of work, dedication, injury and tears are condensed into two five-minute performances before an esteemed panel of 32 judges, teachers and scholarship presenters (2012’s panel included the associate director of the San Francisco Ballet School, the artistic director of Joffrey Ballet’s Academy of Dance and the artistic director of the Seoul International Dance Ballet Competition in Korea).
The Ballet Way of Life
“People don’t realize how hard it is to make it as a dancer,” Larissa observes in the new documentary First Position, released in theaters and On Demand this past summer, and highlighting the competition. The touching film follows six contestants from the U.S., Colombia and Israel as they work their way towards the finals.
“So many dancers would like to have a career, but very, very few succeed,” notes Larissa.
Awareness and education also has become an important part of the YAGP mission. “Ballet was sort of in the shadows for a very long time,” says Larissa. This year, YAGP hosted not one, but two sold-out galas at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, following the Finals. “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” honored the 2012 student winners and presented guests an evening of performances by some of the top dancers and musicians around the world. This year’s event included solos, duets and premiere performances from the likes of Otto Bubenicek (Hamburg Ballet), Alexandre Hammoudi (ABT) and YAGP alumnus Sergei Polunin (Royal Ballet) among a score of artists.
The following evening, Ballerina Assoluta, a star-studded tribute took the stage. The event honored legendary Russian dancer Natalia Makarova (who, at 71, looks amazing). Performances by Polunin, Diana Vishneva (ABT/Mariinsky Ballet) and Ekaterina Kondaurova (Mariinsky Ballet) were among the highlights. Marrying classic ballet with popular culture, Kondaurova and Polunin, along with Tamara Rojo (Royal Ballet) and Marcelo Gomez (ABT), took the stage to perform the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake.
Despite spending much of her day working in Manhattan, Larissa and her family have deep roots in Bergen County, currently calling the borough of Demarest home.
“We’ve been in America for 16 years, and 15 of those we’ve lived in Bergen County,” Larissa says. “I think it’s the best of both worlds: You have New York City in your back yard, but when you’re tired at the end of the day, you come home to a peaceful, beautiful place.”
Her two sons (her eldest graduated from NYU this year) have grown up in the area, participating in Boy Scouts, athletics and more, and Larissa praises what she considers to be “one of the best public education systems in the country.” In addition to hiking and camping in Alpine, Larissa and her family point to the Mitsuwa Japanese Marketplace in Edgewater and the Korean King Spa in Palisades Park as regular haunts.
The connection extends into the dance world as well: Her husband, Gennadi, is the only ABT dancer from Bergen County, and YAGP regularly hosts competitors from the area. This year, 16-year-old Sasha Paulovich, a resident of Ho-Ho-Kus, placed in the top 12 women for her age group in both Classical and Contemporary Dance categories.
“I love the whole area and don’t ever want to leave,” says Larissa.
It might appear to be a big year for Youth America Grand Prix: in addition to the award-winning documentary, two former YAGP contestants appeared in the Tony-winning Broadway musical Newsies, and a third—2003 YAGP Grand Prix winner Seo Hee—became the first Asian principal ever at ABT.
“I’m very proud of this year,” says Larissa, “but the truth is, we have a lot of news every year. We have people promoted in ballet companies around the world.” In fact, over 200 YAGP alumni currently dance with 50 companies globally. “But more recently, our name has become known [among a wider audience], and they are finding out how much is actually happening.”
Robert Haynes-Peterson, BC THE MAG’s Wine Picks columnist, also writes frequently on lifestyle topics. For more information on Youth America Grand Prix, or to participate or donate, visit www.yagp.org.