May 25, 2016

Dance Like No One is Judging

Dance like no one is watching, is what we often hear... All you have to do is be in the moment, listen to the music, apply what you have learned - and enjoy the dancing. Easier said than done. I don't perform on stage, so class is never just warm-up, but the only place where I get to dance. Ballet is my passion, not profession - which doesn't mean I don't take practice seriously. Sometimes, too much. I've always been focused on progress, applying corrections, improving, pushing myself, working hard... But then I can also be too hard on myself, disappointed when I don't meet my own expectations, forgetting what dance is all about: expression and the joy of moving to music. You learn technique to play your instrument, but you cannot paint music without soul.

As an adult ballet student, I have to work with a lot of physical limitations, and accept my shortcomings (lack of turnout, low arabesques, not having the lines I dream of). But there are also advantages: I don't have to go on stage when my body is tired and aching, my (future) career and livelihood does not depend on my performance in class, there's no pressure to do well, no competition, no stress. Hard work, sweat and challenges - yes. But those are an integral part of the experience, and I would not want it any other way.

Two Coppélias. South Koreans Han Dahuin (blue background) and So Yun Park.
Photography by Mirka Kleemola for IBC Helsinki. 

For a young and talented dancer competing in a prestigious ballet competition, it's a very different experience. Every moment is essentially your calling card, a live resume in the making: how you work in class, how you present yourself on and off stage, and finally, how you perform in front of an audience. Those dancers who rise to the top, win price money and prestige, and may be offered job opportunities or scholarships. Not to mention making important contacts for their future careers. It's no wonder tension and nerves run high! Some competitors are, of course, more experienced than others, and many have already secured their first or second contracts with companies. Still... Can you imagine dancing in front of a distinguished jury of notable Artistic Directors? Maina Gielgud, Nina Ananiashvili, Angel Corella, Jorma Elo, to mention a few but not all. Yesterday evening, as I watched IBC Helsinki's jury take their seats, I could feel the electricity building in the air... A ballet competition is serious art (I don't want to say business, even though ticket revenue is what keeps the boat afloat).

What then do the judges look for? I was seated two rows behind (the jury is shielded by unoccupied rows, to their front and back), and could see them scribbling down notes and whispering to each other, but I can only guess... Certainly, it has to be a combination of technique, musicality, expression, stage presence (presentation & projection), personality, artistry - relative to the dancers' age and experience. But, while technical merits are fairly easy to judge, artistry and expression is not. Sometimes, it comes down to personal preferences and tastes. That's why there are seven judges, to bring a variety of views and experiences to the table, and to balance out subjective opinions. Well, that's how I think it works, as I haven't actually talked to any of the judges... In my most humble opinion, I also believe that each judge wishes for every dancer to do well and succeed. Just like the audience does. We want everyone to feel excited and happy on stage, to give us their all, to be lifted with their grand jetés, and touched by their performance. Dance like you love it!

Yesterday evening saw the first day of First Round at IBC Helsinki. Twenty-one dancers took to the stage, 12 juniors and 9 seniors. They performed variations from Giselle, Paquita, Coppélia, Harlequinade, Raymonda, Swan Lake, La Bayadère, Don Quixote, La Fille Mal Gardée, Esmeralda, The Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, and Le Corsaire. Usually, the audience gets to see most variations performed more than once by different dancers, so it's easier to compare technique and interpretations. Or you can just sit back, and enjoy without looking at technical details too much. I try to do both. Glittering costumes, nerves, happy smiles, amazing jumps and turns, failed balances, disappointment, triumphant recoveries, hard work paying off, athletes, emerging artists... The excitement of it all!

Looking at the first evening of three (round one), the South Koreans rule. So Yun Park (seniors, b. 1996) was a smash hit in her gravity-defying and completely secure Paquita variation. Wonderful ballon in the exhilarating grand jeté entrance. That girl can fly! To top it off, turns like there's no tomorrow, effortless, joyful expression and a pleasure to watch. Another South Korean, Han Dahin (juniors), danced the same variations and was equally delightful without being identical. Not as impressive in the Paquita variation as Part, but I did like the softness in her fingers. Too often, energy and nerves make hands and fingers stiff or over-extended, when they should add the final touch... Of the boys, Korean Jeongmin Cheon (juniors, b. 2000) dazzled me the most. He danced a variation from Harlequinade, which is not one of my favorites, but Cheon really sold it. Incredible jump and turns, bounces like he has trampolines under his feet. And that happy smile!

Other stand-outs: Oben Yildirim (juniors, b. 1997) from Turkey. Her Paquita did not convince me, she seemed tense and lost balance... But her comeback after the intermission was impressive! Yildirim danced Esmeralda's variation with gusto and spirit, hitting those tambourines like she's never done anything else in her life. The audience loved it!

Ketlin Oja (left) and Oben Yildirim. Photography by Mirka Kleemola for IBC Helsinki.

Ketlin Oja (juniors, b. 1997), Estonia. A perfect princess in her Nutcracker variation. She reminds of a music box ballerina, blonde and delicate, with the face of a precious doll. Very precise and controlled. Sure to proceed to round two, where I'll be very interested to see her dance something different and contemporary.

Xinlun Zhan, (seniors, b. 1991), China. Certain to proceed to the Final Round. She danced Sleeping Beauty and Don Quixote variations with utmost precision, and has that perfect physicality we have come to expect from the Chinese schools. Perhaps a bit reserved/polite in her expression... I would like to see the dancer beneath the role, something that makes her unique. Having said that, her dancing came across as effortlessly elegant.

Christian Pforr (juniors, b. 1997), USA. Very promising, great jump. I liked his variation from Coppélia better than his first one from Giselle. Hope to see him in the second round, and not stress about the performance too much. Enjoy, and engage with the audience. Forget about the judges.

There were others too, lots of potential and promise. Every dancer had something special about them even if there sometimes was still an element of youthful inexperience. Ballet is hard, competitions are even harder, travel days, jet lag, new surroundings, nerves... It all takes a toll. Failed balances are understandable. Tomorrow is another day. See you on the stage, toi toi toi!

- Johanna Elina Aurava

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