Admiring the ballet competition archive
The future is always unknown, but right now it’s distinctly hard to think about. Cancelled shows and closed studios make it increasingly more difficult to envision our way out, but do not let ballet’s delicate nature fool you — she is a sturdy and stubborn art form, here for us in sickness as much as she is in health. Join me to twirl around some of the artifacts from her history and maybe we’ll discover something new about the present.
A lot of ballet is hard to access — most works made in the 20th and 21st centuries are copyrighted by choreographer’s trusts and the ballets that survive from the 18th or 19th centuries often require opulent production values that end up being just as expensive as a royalty fee. This system, while often necessary to uphold the standard required by the work’s creator, keeps ballet behind a substantial paywall. Audiences become restricted to those who can afford the tickets for the companies that can afford the rights of a desired show. Filmed work requires videographers with knowledge of the art form and it is often expensive to complete and costly to buy. This boundary is one of the reasons that COVID-19's causation of the ‘digital season’ became such a highlight of 2020. As companies took to YouTube and Facebook to muster support in the wake of cancelled performances, brief glimpses of legendary Balanchine choreography or luxurious 19th century sets suddenly became available to anyone with a social media account.
But YouTube existed long before this pandemic, and despite the platform’s lack of full recorded shows, the website boasts an impressive collection of footage from ballet competitions. Unlike those digital seasons, these recordings of student solos are permanent and vast. Their power, and their entertainment value, should not go overlooked.
Competitions in ballet are controversial. Unlike more contemporary forms of dance, ballet’s artistic requirements include elements that are hard to define and often impossible to score — emotions are portrayed more subtly and scoreboards can often erase artistry. This does not bode well for the distribution of medals. Nevertheless, competitions hold valid places in the dance world today: They provide opportunities for visibility, scholarships, and stage experience. They also contribute hundreds or perhaps even thousands of hours to ballet’s presence online.
For classical ballet students, two competitions that offer the largest quantities of these things are the Prix de Lausanne and the Youth America Grand Prix. The Prix de Lausanne occurs yearly in Switzerland; the competition hosts around 80 candidates aged 15-18, selected via video auditions from around the world. The Youth America Grand Prix starts with hundreds of semifinal locations in which they adjudicate thousands of candidates aged 9-19; the winners attend the finals in New York City. Though different in size and style, both organizations operate in the same general premise: Every candidate has two chances onstage, once for a contemporary solo and once for a classical variation. The latter is selected from a list of pre-approved solos from acclaimed 19th century ballets. They require careful study of legendary choreography matched with sparkling costumes and well-developed artistry.
During each of these performances, both competitions employ professional videographers — the Prix de Lausanne streams the footage straight to YouTube, YAGP sells the individual videos to students who are free to post them to their own YouTube accounts. Convoluted details aside, the result often goes unappreciated — this amounts to a yearly data dump of free balletic repertoire. Many of the solos come from ballets that rarely see stage time at local theaters; their full price tags are too expensive. In other words, these competitions create a loophole: Elusive choreography becomes within reach, suddenly watchable for free from the couch.
A ballet snob might say that this doesn’t count, that these are just students and their dancing should not be the standard of such distinguished shows. In reality, a lot of these students are really good — they come to these competitions with the goal to get hired by elite companies, and many of them achieve that dream. Their movements are exceptionally rehearsed, their costumes are expensively brilliant, and their performances are truly enjoyable. The collegiate NCAA has never prevented success for the NFL, NBA, and MBA: Students do not diminish professionals.
Many dance critics lament the state of 21st century ballet — from history’s perspective, they say, this art form is not as appreciated as it was at the height of its last boom in the mid 20th century. This may be true: The New Yorker’s current dance critic devotes as many words to dance in a year as her predecessor did in a month. Many say this is a problem with audiences: Too many people supposedly fail to see the value in traditional performance and classical music. But this ideology is often presented as the fault of the viewers rather than issue borne out of ballet's internal operations.
Perhaps this lack of interest comes from a lack of accessibility — no one will buy a $200 ticket to “Giselle” if they have never heard of it before, and no one is ever going to hear about it if we continue keeping this art form sequestered away from pop culture. But, on YouTube right now, there are at least 500 different versions of various students performing the titular protagonist’s most famous “Giselle” solo. Some of them may be far from perfect, but others are charming and all of them are free to consume. With every new view, more audiences are exposed to the swish of a traditional peasant costume and the flutters of famous ballet music.
The death of ballet does not have to do with lowering standards — in fact the talent of these student solos suggests that standards get higher every year. Instead, this art form will die if we continue to downplay its role on the internet. If we continue suggesting that ballet is too cultured, too enlightened, or too sophisticated to binge from a quarantined couch, it will be us who have failed to see the value in our own work.