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Potential over perfection: Youth America Grand Prix puts training where the talent is.

Winning a gold, silver, or bronze medal is always a thrill, hut the real prize at Youth America Grand Prix is learning where you fit in. Hundreds of dancers ages 9 to 19 participate in regionals and finals, coming away with a clearer picture of their future.

A neophyte in competitions, YACP celebrates its fifth anniversary this year. After conducting regionals from January to March and screening videos from international applicants, it has invited about 200 semi-finalists for the big weekend in New York City, at Alice Tully Hall, from April 22 to 26. Each year, representatives from leading schools around the world gather here, offering scholarships to their institutions. Some of them also serve on the jury panel. Australian Ballet School is the latest to add its generosity to the list, which has grown from eight schools in 2000 to twenty-three this year (see But contestants beware: As the list of schools grows, the number of applicants increase, and the technical level hikes up.

Last November, YAGP founders, Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev, and their director of public relations, Sergey Gordeev, discussed the past and future of YAGP at the DANCE MAGAZINE offices in Manhattan.

Larissa and Gennadi met while dancing in the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, and became a couple after immigrating to the United States in the mid-1990s. They danced briefly with Tulsa Ballet, Los Angeles Classical Ballet, and New Jersey Ballet.

Later, as a teacher at Robin Horneff's Performing Arts Center in New Jersey, Larissa missed the consistency of approach that exists in Russia. Curious to get around, she began judging for the jazz competition Dance Caravan. But there were no ballet students. And at the New York International Ballet Competition there were no dancers younger than seventeen (See "Crash Course in Competition," DANCE MAGAZINE, November 2003 page 50). Those limitations, plus seeing the impact of Gennadi's winning the silver at the New York International Ballet Competition in 1996--he is now a soloist at American Ballet Theatre--spurred Larissa and Gennadi to start their own festival and competition.

What has emerged from four years of YAGP, of which DANCE MAGAZINE is a sponsor, is an international cross-pollination of training. American students who have earned scholarships (not necessarily medals) are going to top-notch schools abroad like The Royal Ballet School and Paris Opera Ballet, while students from Brazil, Canada, Russia, and Japan are going to American schools like the Joffrey Ballet School, Rock School of Pennsylvania Ballet, and Harid Conservatory (see Young Dancer, page 63).

Gennadi points out that the schools are looking for potential more than perfection. Gordeev adds, "Often, these schools prefer people who aren't heavily trained because they can mold that person into something." Occasionally, he says, "They fight for talent." But he emphasizes that it's more than a "shopping cart of schools" because of Larissa's guidance, which can point students--and their parents--to the schools and second companies most suitable for their unique combination of talents.

As for the actual competing, Maria Abashova gives this advice: "Believe in yourself, and don't be afraid to show who you are at the moment. The main thing is to enjoy what you're doing."

Likolani Brown

Likolani Brown, who studied al the Washington School of Ballet under Mary Day, competed in 2001, just after she was accepted on scholarship to the summer program of the School of American Ballet, the training ground for New York City Ballet. At the YAGP gala, twelve finalists were asked to come down to the stage, and she was one of them. "I was excited about that because I didn't expect to win anything. So when I got the bronze, I was really shocked." Suki Schorer, an SAB faculty member who was present, took notice and extended a warm welcome to her. After two years at SAB, Brown became an apprentice at City Ballet.

For Brown, 19, the best part of the competition experience was the two-month preparation period of one-on-one coaching. She learned a contemporary piece choreographed by Lorraine Spiegler, one of her modern teachers. "It was a really deep piece, and I had to delve into my emotions," she recalled. She also valued "learning how to phrase things--not just doing the steps but making them evolve and flow."

Maria Abashova

Maria Abashova, 18, has come full Circle. She started her studies in the Ukraine, went to St. Polten Ballet Academy in Austria for more serious training, flew to the United States in 2002 for the YAGP, and got a job with the Eifman Ballet of St. Peterburg that brought her back to Russia.

Having also entered two competitions in Europe, she said, "America wasn't as stressful. It was not just about winning so it was much more enjoyable." Thinking back, she said, "I didn't expect to win; I just wanted to have my experience and see the level of other dancers" But win she did, taking home the gold that year. At the moment her name was announced, she says, "I didn't even react. I didn't listen to who won first place; I had only listened to the bronze and silver. My friend shook me and pushed me out onstage. Only the next day did I realize what happened."

Michael Fichtenbaum, director of St. Polten's, took her to St Petersburg to see the Eifman Ballet.

"When I saw Boris Eifman's Red Giselle, I suddenly had a goal--to dance ballets of this style," says Abashova. "The choreography allows for the acting part of the dancer to shine forth." She was accepted into the company, and became a soloist--only one year later!

Joseph Phillips

What Joseph Phillips, an apprentice with San Francisco Ballet, likes about YAGP are the master classes and the opportunity to meet other dancers. (This year's teachers include Melissa Hayden, Rebecca Wright, and Robert Barnett.) He studied at South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and North Carolina School of the Arts, working intensively with coach Stanislav Issaev at both schools.

He won the gold at YACP in 2002, and then went on to capture gold at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Mississippi, and then at the Prague International Ballet Competition. How did he accomplish this amazing triple-header?

"You have to come to class every day and do your absolute best. There's not one day when you can back off," he says. "My teachers were really supportive, especially Stanislav. He was a mentor and father figure."

At YAGP, Phillips was offered a scholarship to The Universal Ballet Academy in Washington, DC (formerly The Kirov Academy of Ballet). But he chose to stay one more year at NCSA.

"The best part of my training was going to competitions," he says, "because it gave me something to look forward to."

Simone Messmer

Simone Messmer, 19, never won a medal, but after trying again and again, she won a place in ABT. Growing up in Minneapolis, she set ABT as a goal by the age of nine. At 14, she left home to study at Florida's Harid Conservatory, which selected her to enter YAGP in 2000. She felt she didn't do well, but John Meehan, director of ABT Studio Company and summer intensive, did notice her. The next year she competed in the finals, but didn't place. Using money she had earned performing in a Nutcracker movie, she entered the regional in Chicago in 2001. Again, she didn't reel she performed well. Then Larissa told her that Meehan would be al the regionals in North Carolina, where she did do well.

"Larissa saw the artist in me when I and she really pushed me," says Messmer. "She said, 'Never give up. If it doesn't happen now, keep going.'" Messmer was invited into the Studio Company in 2001, and then into the corps of ABT in 2003.

"My mother never put me in a competition, because she thought it was sort of trashy," Messmer says. "She didn't think an art was something that should be won or lost." But, she says, YAGP is different. "With Larissa, it's not about winning but about who sees you."

Joseph Gatti

At last year's gala, Joseph Gatti was the one who blurted out, in answer to the question of where he wanted to dance, "ABT, ABT, ABT!" He had studied with Vadim Fedotov and Irena Depler at both Orlando Ballet School and Russian Academy of Ballet. When the Orlando ballet master asked him to enter the YAGP competition, "I told him I wasn't a competitions type of person," Gatti recalled. "But I needed to try' something new. I thought it might be a boost to my cartel."

After Gatti, 19, was awarded the gold at YAGP last year, offers came from San Francisco Ballet School, Boston Ballet II, and The Royal Ballet School. Excited and confused, he wavered. Finally, he accepted the offer from the RB School. "I feel like I've improved in every way, he said in January. "It's amazing to be around the caliber of the dancers here." He also spoke rapturously about being able to watch the likes of Carlos Acosta in rehearsal.

But he will be leaving London to fulfill his dream. Last winter he signed a contract for the ABT Studio Company, to start in September. When he got the call from John Meehan, he says, "I was, like, 'Yes, yes, yes!' I just ran out of the phone booth, and I was almost at the point of crying."
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Author:Perron, Wendy
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EXUR
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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