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2006 Genée International Ballet Competition

Natasha Rogai immerses herself in all things Genee and has an extended chat with Antoinette Sibley about judging and standards....

by Natasha Rogai



© Conrad Dy-Liacco

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Natasha Rogai reviews






This year Hong Kong played host to the Genée International Ballet Competition, which brings together the best graduates of the Royal Academy of Dance from around the world to display their skills and compete for gold, sliver and bronze medals. This was only the third time in its 70 plus years of existence that the competition was held outside the UK (it now takes place in another country in alternate years) and was a fitting way to mark the 50th anniversary of RAD teaching in Hong Kong.

Before the competition began, I was able to interview today’s RAD President, Dame Antoinette Sibley. One of the greatest dancers of her generation, Sibley retains her delicate English rose beauty, but turns out to be brisk, lively and refreshingly no nonsense. She explains that the RAD was established 85 years ago in the UK to “teach teachers how to teach, and examiners how to examine.” and provides a syllabus taking ballet pupils from age 5 to age19. Sometimes perceived as a rather parochial institution, Sibley is quick to point out that it is present in 82 countries worldwide, that the syllabus incorporates teaching from different national schools of ballet, and that a committee of international experts advise on continuous development. While Hong Kong is a bastion of RAD, the Mainland has traditionally been dominated by the Vaganova method introduced there during the Soviet era. Today RAD is also being taught there, and the Academy has a partnership with Shanghai Tong Ji University, whose dance graduates are offered the opportunity to qualify as RAD registered teachers.

The Genée is open to students aged 14 to 19, who are entered by their teachers, and must achieve over 75% in the most advanced RAD exams (RAD training is a pre-requisite for entry). Three judges (this year Sibley, Zhao Ruheng, Executive Director of the National Ballet of China, and John Meehan, Artistic Director of Hong Kong Ballet) watch two days of semi-finals. On the first day the dancers do class (floor work only, no barre “You can do anything clinging to a barre.” Sibley commented), on the second they perform two solos each : one from a 19th century ballet and one original piece created for the competition, which has the added value of letting participants work with a choreographer. The judges then select the most outstanding (usually around 10 to 15) to go through to the final, where they will dance the same two solos again, along with a 20th century one by Ashton or MacMillan.

This year’s original variations – one female and one male – were created by local choreographer Yuri Ng, with music by another Hong Konger, Leon Ko. As a former Genée gold medallist himself, Ng is uniquely well-placed to understand what the participants face. His solos demanded a strong grasp of the subtler points of technique (“They’re tricky!” he announced gleefully) while leaving the dancers plenty of room for individual interpretation. They were also delightful to watch, and the best tribute to Ko’s pleasing music was that one could hear it so many times without getting tired of it.

How do you judge something as personal as the way somebody dances? Sibley has judged many international competitions, and is firmly against a marks out of ten type system. “People cheat!” she says indignantly, “They see the particular person they want isn’t doing well and mark the others down. Just like ice-skating!” The Genée judges reach their decisions through discussion and, to ensure fairness, judge the competitors blind. “None of us know where they come from, their ages, schools, or anything about them… Sometimes it’s difficult because you see someone who does look rather young and who has a great future but might not be doing it very well yet because they’re not strong enough.” A list of criteria is given to both judges and competitors, to help keep the process transparent.

 


Valentino Zucchetti - 2006 Gold Medalist
© Conrad Dy-Liacco

Everybody judges differently. Sibley recalls laughingly that Frederick Ashton “made his decision from the start, he didn’t even wait - he could see what he would look for in a dancer, you see”, while Alicia Markova “… never wrote anything down at all, she never had one mark on her sheet, but then at the end she would say exactly who it was, and discuss it all and give the reasons why.” The Genée is essentially about performance, so “Interpretation and personality is a very important ingredient of what we’re looking for. How you interpret the music and the choreography, what you bring to it”. Nonetheless, technical standards must still be met : “They do have to be able to do the two or three pirouettes and finish in fifth, the double tours have to be to right and to left. There are standards which have to be obeyed, and even if you see someone who has utter charm and personality, if they can’t do the technique, that’s no good.”

There is no first, second and third place – more than one medal may be awarded in silver and bronze, while gold is only given “if there’s somebody who takes your breath away.” Competitors are judged strictly by what they do in the final : “It’s the in-betweens that are the hard thing, because someone has this, and someone has that, so therefore it is what they do on that night. Which is how it has to be, because when people come to see a performance, you can’t say “Sorry, I did wonderfully in rehearsal.” The task is easier when competitors excel. “You can’t miss someone who’s very special. You can see it when they’re just doing class, somebody who bowls you over, you can’t hide it. It’s harder when there isn’t any very special person, that’s when we discuss till the minute they call us on stage, trying to all agree completely on something.”

The competition itself was enjoyable to watch, but the overall standard was disappointing, particularly among the girls. This was reflected in the selection of finalists, who included 7 boys (out of 11) but only 5 girls (out of 40), and suggests the Genée is at a disadvantage compared to international dance competitions open to dancers from different schools, and with entry based on talent, rather than exam results (the latter do not guarantee the former).

 


Left to right:
Kostantyn Keshyshev (Silver), Jessica Morgan (Bronze), David Moore (Bronze), Valentino Zucchetti (Gold), Dr Stanley Ho (Patron of the competition), Antoinette Sibley (RAD President), Jia Yong Sun (Bronze), Ye Fei Fei (Silver), Gemma Graves (Silver)
© Conrad Dy-Liacco

The gold went to Valentino Zucchetti, an Italian studying at the Royal Ballet School, who danced the solo from Don Quixote with verve and virtuosity. Ukrainian silver medallist Kostyantyn Keshyshev gave Zucchetti a run for his money with a fine Le Corsaire, but his choice of the Blue Boy from Les Patineurs as his 20th century solo did not showcase him effectively – a very tall boy, he would have done better to tackle the MacMillan variation from Danses Concertantes. The exquisite Ye Fei Fei also won silver, as well as the Audience Award, but was slightly less impressive in the final than the semi-finals, where her Act 1 solo from Giselle was outstanding. Winner of a bronze at Varna earlier in the year, she is a name to watch for. I was also impressed by bronze medallist Jessica Morgan, currently studying with Masha Mukhamedov at Elmhurst, who had a warm and striking stage presence as well as a strong technique. Hong Kong’s 17 year old Edgar Chan Lai Kiu did well to reach the final and showed real promise, but his performance skills were not mature enough for a medal. The evening was a triumph for Vancouver’s Goh Ballet Academy, whose three contestants all reached the final, two of them winning silver (Ye and Keshyshev) and the third (James Stout) in my opinion unlucky to go home without a medal.


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