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Ballet returns to Mississippi; every four years Olympic-style ballet returns to Jackson.

THE VII USA INTERNATIONAL BALLET competition--June 15-30 in Jackson, Mississippi--rarely elicits the query these days of "Why in the world in Jackson?" Instead people ask, "How do they do it?" The Mississippi capital extends its Southern hospitality this year to 118 dancers from twenty-five countries, their coaches, and thirteen jurors from around the world. And they are just the core. There's also an International Dance School, three professional performing companies, workshops, ancillary exhibits, visiting dignitaries, and the result is as much festival as competition. The secret is that more than 1,800 volunteers open their hearts and homes to this every-four-year interruption in everyday life and do whatever it takes to make this dance phenomenon happen.

Chosen by local businesses as a way of bringing the outside world to Jackson, the realization of the competition and school were the vision of founder Thalia Mara, a former ballerina and teacher. She and her dance colleagues saw a way to attract and inspire dancers and audiences in an area that was more interested in sports than the arts. Perseverance and professional contacts were key in a task that many saw as monumental, but that Mara deemed her mission.

The nonprofit Mississippi Ballet International was created in 1978 to produce the first IBC in the United States, and the late Robert Joffrey, co-founder and artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, agreed to chair the first international jury panel. The first USA IBC in June 1979 attracted seventy dancers from fifteen countries. After Joffrey's death, Bruce Marks, a dancer with both Pearl Lang's modern dance company and American Ballet Theatre who later became artistic director of Ballet West and then Boston Ballet, assumed the role of chairman of the international jury.

The International Theatre Institute (ITI) of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially recognized the event, and Jackson joined the rotation of other ITI competitions in Moscow, Helsinki, and Varna, Bulgaria. In 1982, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution designating Jackson the official home of the USA IBC.

But it wasn't immune to crises. Boats were paddling in the streets days before the first opening, and flood damage to the auditorium threatened the first competition. In 1982, the defection of a Chinese dancer created an international incident. In 1986, the USA IBC was almost out of money and a $350,000 appropriation from state legislators was vetoed by the governor.

"The wolves were sitting out there, waiting to grab the USA IBC for their city," recalled Sue Lobrano, executive director of the competition since 1986. But the city's movers and shakers, rallied by the mayor, saved the event. The organization has been financially secure since 1990.

Growth and glory have outshone patches of trouble. The second USA IBC was featured in the ABC/PBS-produced film, To Dance for Gold.

In 1986, the Soviet Union was represented for the first time at the U.S. competition, and Soviet dancers Andris Liepa and Nina Ananiashvili took its senior top prize, The Grand Prix City of Jackson Award of Excellence with prize money of $10,000. Jose Manuel Carreno, a first-time entrant from Cuba, won the Grand Prix in 1990.

A record 131 competitors (since limited to about 100) from thirty-eight countries arrived in 1994, and Royal Danish Ballet dancer Johan Kobborg, now a principal with The Royal Ballet, took home the Grand Prix. In 1998, 16-year-old American Rasta Thomas, against all advice, competed in the senior division rather than the junior and still grabbed gold; his partner, Adrienne Canterna, also won gold in the junior category (see profile of Rasta Thomas on page 40).

The competition's policies seek to ensure fairness and a rich experience for competitors. Great care is taken in the selection of judges; there's only one juror per country. The highest and lowest scores of the judges are thrown out as in many Olympic competitions. Dancers who are eliminated in early rounds are invited to stay for the remainder of the competition, and a choreography workshop and performance puts them back onstage for the closing ceremonies.

Jackson ballerina Kathy Thibodeaux, 1982 USA IBC silver medalist and founder/artistic director of Ballet Magnificat!, contributes studios for rehearsals during the event, along with Millsaps College, the Mississippi Arts Center, and Ballet Mississippi. Belhaven College, at nominal cost, provides housing, food, and rehearsal space for competitors and students, and the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum and Jackson State University host the International Dance School.

Two weeks of nearly sold-out seats in Jackson's Thalia Mara Auditorium that are filled with Mississippi residents and balletomanes from all corners of the world testify to the prestige and popularity of this world-class event.

SUE LOBRANO, HOMETOWN HERO

IN 1979, SUE EVANS LOBRANO was an amazed spectator at the first USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. Lobrano was assistant to the director of state tourism at the time. But on the heels of that first event, she joined the competition's tiny permanent staff and has never left it. She's been the USA IBC's executive director since 1986, traveling the world to other competitions, overseeing the administration between the four Jackson years, and organizing each momentous quadrennial gathering. She is the glue that has held it together through the years.

Lured by a lifelong love of dance, she started as what she describes as "a glorified secretary," and learned the IBC from the bottom up. "What I was actually doing was training to be the director--something that never crossed my mind," said Lobrano, now 59.

Dance has rarely been off her mind from the moment she set foot in class at age 7. "To this day--and my children will roll their eyes--if the music comes on, I'll just hop up and dance.... I am so moved by the beauty of movement."

The love latched on early despite a dearth of classical ballet training in 1950s Batesville, the small northern Mississippi town where she grew up. "Fortunately, we lived so close to Memphis, I studied there, and my parents trucked me back and forth," Lobrano said. She studied all forms of dance with Charlotte Morgan in Memphis, and her dance education later included jazz with Gus Giordano in Chicago and ballet with the Memphis Civic Ballet. She began teaching ballet, tap, and jazz under Morgan's direction while still in high school, and she later opened her own dance school, attracting 200 to 250 students from the area during its thirteen-year run.

She moved to Jackson and, in the 1970s, worked in state tourism and staged Mississippi's Miss Hospitality Pageant and several other pageants. She taught for the Jackson Ballet for a year under its founder, Thalia Mara.

Lobrano's soft-spoken Southern manner belies the quadrennial frenzy that swamps her office each competition year. Competitors, companies, coaches, and jury members from other countries, volunteers, and dance fans converge on Jackson for the prestigious two-week marathon of ballet. Undergirding Lobrano's sheer endurance and grace under pressure is a sly wit that's both welcome relief and a stress-survival tactic.

"Being compulsive has served me well in this position. There are so many details and ... so much follow-through has to be done. And I'm so patient," Lobrano said, smiling as she craned her neck to see whether her staff had overheard. "When they're really bugging me, I wave my little voodoo ballerina," she said, warding off imaginary staffers with a tiny skeleton in a pink tutu.

Lobrano's administrative talents have been key in other organizations, too: founding member--World Dance Alliance; honorary committee--2000 Ballets Russes Celebration in New Orleans; advisory councils--Arts Alliance of Jackson/Hinds County and the Academic & Performing Arts Complex; and, for five years, executive board member of the Mississippi Dance Association.

Lobrano recently received the Hands of Providence Award from Southern Christian Services for Children and Youth for her work with young people. And in 1999, the Jackson Convention and Visitors Bureau hailed her as a "Hometown Hero."

Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa

Nina Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa (Senior-USSR) won the City of Jackson Grand Prix at the USA IBC in 1986. Recipient of a 2002 Dance Magazine Award, Ananiashvili is a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Houston Ballet. Liepa, son of the legendary Soviet-era dancer Maris Liepa, danced lead roles with the Bolshoi, Kirov, American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet. He retired from classical performing early due to injuries. He creates and produces theatrical programs in Russia.

Jose Manuel Carreno

Jose Manuel Carreno (Senior-Cuba), coached by Laura Alonso, won the City of Jackson Grand Prix in 1990. Carreno was principal dancer at Ballet Nacional de Cuba, English National Ballet (1990-1993), The Royal Ballet, London (1993-1995), and has been a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre since 1995.

Rasta Thomas and Adrienne Canterna

In 1998, Rasta Thomas (USA) won the men's senior division gold medal and Adrienne Canterna (USA) won the women's junior gold medal. They also danced a contemporary pas de deux, Shogun, for which choreographer Ivonice Satie won the 1998 Capezio Choreography Award. Canterna danced until the 2002 season with The Washington Ballet, which is near her home in Maryland. Thomas danced briefly with the Kirov and continues to freelance, working in several media globally.

[ILLUSTRATIONS OMITTED]

Arts reporter Sherry Lucas has covered the U.S.A. International Ballet Competition for the Jackson [Mississippi] Daily News and The Clarion-Ledger since 1986.
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Title Annotation:Mississippi Ballet International
Author:Lucas, Sherry
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Jun 1, 2002
Words:1561
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