For some years now there has been gathering attention, publicity and even some degree of notoriety surrounding the biggest ballet competitions such as Youth American Grand Prix (YAGP) and the International Ballet Competition (IBC) which at first might seem like a good thing – to coin a Hollywood phrase, ‘the only thing worse than bad publicity is no publicity’. But there is something else at stake here and it is no small thing.
Along with this seeming upward trend of publicity for ballet because of YAGP and IBC and other competitive dance shows and contests, there has been a precipitous decline and even removal of arts education from public and even many private schools. On the face of it these two seem unrelated except that the average age of a competitor at the major ballet competitions – 14 – is precisely the same age as the students in middle school and high school who are stepping off into the void of no education as to what the arts are, no application of how to practice any of them for their original intent (which is the creative exploration of existence not prize winning) and this comes on the heels of an elementary experience which for nearly all students, including anyone participating in YAGP or IBC, etc., has shown a scary fall off in creative thinking and imagination development during the elementary education process.
Those of us who are priviledged to work in the arts and ballet are all aware of these trends among beginner through intermediate aged students. Unfortunately, there has been a major move to turn the arts into some kind of contest sport for the sake of ratings by the people who run YAGP and the IBC and all those TV dance competition shows and so forth rather than helping to do something about the decline of imagination and creatvity among beginner to intermediate age students. Exactly what this is contest sport ballet stuff is supposed to do or who it is supposed to benefit is very unclear because other than the TV channels who earn ad revenue and the organizational bodies of the YAGP and the IBC making money off of the very high fees charged for these events, the performers involved and the art form of ballet receive practically nothing in return. Who wants to grow up and train for 10+ years as an artist to be a profitable property for a TV station to sell ads through – with none of that money coming to you? Who wants to grow up and train for 10+ years as an artist to spend $4,000 or more each year in competition fees to the YAGP for the sake of possibly getting a professional contract when you can still accomplish that by first becoming a good dancer in a competent ballet program then auditioning directly for a professional company?
Professional companies still do almost all their hiring by the live audition. So, for any student wishing to be employed by Boston Ballet or Houston Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet, the YAGP and IBC are utterly NOT essential. Somehow a hood has been pulled over everyone’s eyes such that people think if they spend thousands and thousands of extra dollars doing YAGP, IBC or other competitions that their student will somehow be put in a great position to be hired by a professional company – that is just flat out wrong. What has happened is a distortion of the art form of ballet into somekind of contest sport where the end-all-be-all is the quest for awesome technique. That sort of pursuit is neat but nearly useless should you wish to make a compelling Juliet or a tragic Giselle. Especially considering that nearly all of those 14 year olds who achieve robotic perfection in their technique will burn out and be done with Ballet before they even graduate high school rendering all that effort useless to the future of ballet, but very lucrative to the organizers of the YAGP, the IBC, and so forth.
Ballet has always been an art form where a longer career span can be possible – women can viably perform into their early 40’s, men into their mid-30’s – as opposed to many other sports and especially Competitive Gymnastics wherein there is almost no such thing as a 20 year old competitor, usually not even an 18 year old competitor due to the ultra high, severely traumatic injury rate. But now, as more and more of these YAGP type competition circles run on, a nearly equivalent and equally bothersome attrition among young dancers occurs only instead of lifelong crippling injuries they simply quit the art form due to burnout. But not before shelling out tons of cash.
Obviously competition itself is a healthy thing and for sure ballet is VERY competitive already simply because you have thousands of dancers all over the world constantly seeking to get into the best dozen or so ballet companies and from there that level of competition continues right on down to regional professional ballet companies Milwaukee Ballet or Tulsa Ballet. So there never was any lack of competitiveness in ballet to begin with – in fact, far from it. But now, over and above that type of healthy competition that makes people want to improve their technique in order to get into the company they like as a professional dancer, the contest sport type of competition has been wedged into ballet the only purpose of which can be to make money for the organizers – those types of competitions do not help the art form advance at all (due to that high burn out rate among young contestants), and they are utterly unnecessary for anyone who wants to pursue professional dance work.
It would be truly helpful to ballet and the arts if the organizers of the YAGP, the IBC, and the other competitions and TV competition shows, would realize the golden opportunity they have to reinvigorate the sensibility and enjoyment of the performing arts as something other than a mere vehicle for someone else’s judgement as to who wins blue ribbons, something more intuitive than a contest sport, and as something other than a means for the organizers to score very large sums of money through endless types of competition fees. Or, let’s put it in another way: a ballet dancer is someone who must first enjoy the artistic, creative process because that is what the art is still built upon, and is someone who also enjoys pursuing their own technique not just for mechanical perfection like 7 pirouettes, but emotional conveyance, story telling, and being interesting to watch while working on stage. These competitions do exactly what George Lucas so prophetically warned about concerning his own work with Star Wars: “… a special effect by itself is uninteresting without a compelling story to go with it.”