By Tara Mitton Catao
Dance competitions are multiplying in profusion these days, forcing those of us in the art form to have mixed feelings about a growing popularity that seems to treat dance more as a sport than an art form.
Dance has always relied heavily on technique because it uses the human body as its tool for artistic expression. The more technique a dancer has, the more range there is for artistic expression. This fusion is the essence of the art form but it is this proximity of the physical prowess and artistic portrayal that makes it easy — especially in a competition — to swerve off course and stress one without the balance of the other.
Celebrities in the ballet world are often created when a dancer has an astonishing technique that pushes the level of physicality to a new standard that others will strive to emulate. Amazing technique is something that is so much more tangible and easy for an audience to grasp, whereas true artistry is so much more elusive.
To me, the right balance is the dancer who dances with such artistry that his or her technique is almost invisible, yet at the same time totally marvelous.
The truth is that in this proliferation of dance competitions, most are more like talent shows, presenting slam-bam-thank you-ma’am technique. The top-tier competitions are the international ballet competitions at which advanced dancers are pre-selected and represent their country in an Olympics-style event that involves several rounds in different categories. Contestants are gradually eliminated until the final round, where someone wins a gold, silver or bronze medal.
Beginning today, Gabrielle Chock will compete in the prestigious International Ballet Competition, which is held every four years in Jackson, Miss. Begun in 1964, the competition rotates between Varna, where it originated, Moscow, Tokyo and Jackson. Armed with a stockpile of pointe shoes — which she goes through at the rate of three pairs a week (that’s close to $300 for just shoes) — four gorgeous tutus, as well as other costumes for her contemporary solos, Gabrielle (Gabby), at just 16, is an old hand at competitions.
Like most ballet dancers on a professional track, Gabby’s life (and her family’s) is completely devoted to ballet. Six days a week, from morning till late at night, she is at the dance studio juggling numerous classes, private coaching, rehearsals as well as performances and online schooling in order to further her dream.
Currently, she is training at the Pompano Beach dance studio of Magaly Suarez, a well-known and highly respected ballet teacher who trained in Cuba at the National Ballet School.
Where did this young dancer’s dedication start? “When I was four years old, I saw ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and fell in love with the whole look of it. I loved the costumes, the scenery and the ballerinas. I wanted to be just like one of them,” she said.
When chatting with Gabby, with whom I work closely, coaching her in her contemporary work, she said what I have heard many times from young dancers in my years judging and coaching competitions: “My dream is to become a principal dancer with a ballet company and be able to dance all over the world,” she said. “There are so many great companies like San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. I would be happy to dance with any of them.”
Gabby has what it takes to succeed in this highly competitive field. She has astonishing but seemingly effortless technique, the right body proportions for the aesthetics of classical ballet, and a strong work ethic. Earlier this year, Gabby competed at the South African International Ballet Competition in Cape Town and took home a bronze medal.
So what is it that is so alluring about the competing? In dance, we know that we are addicted to the ongoing, continuous goal of striving for perfection. So is it the prospect of winning? Is it the energy in the rivalry among the competitors? Or is it to find a new personal best?
Whatever it is, it is what is engaging the dance world and what a large amount of the training is being dedicated toward, as more and more young dancers train extensively for a host of competitions.
So it is up to us, the judges in the competitions and the other professionals in the field to assess, train and guide these young technical talents to artistry. As the Russian-trained ballet dancer and founder of the hugely successfully Youth America Grand Prix, Larissa Saveliev, said in amazement to me at the finals at New York’s Lincoln Center this year: “I was never was able to do that at that age. No one could do that then.”
The physical talent is evident in the young dancers but the challenge in this day and age is to keep ballet as an art form in the theater and not as a sport in an arena. In Jackson, you can be sure that Gabby will be concentrating on the art.
The International Ballet Competition begins today in Jackson, Miss., and runs through June 29 at Thalia Mara Hall. For more information, visit www.usaibc.com or call 601-355-9853.