Guest writer: Shelly Power, associate director of Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy
By now the news of Houston Ballet’s success at the Prix is old news, but I thought I would sum up the last day for those of you who chose to follow my blog all week. I wanted to send my thoughts directly after the experience but exhaustion and press calls kept me busy until the wee hours of the morning (not a complaint).
Sunday morning began at 8 am for the jury with interviews with the semi finalists who did not make the last round. I met with 6 students to answer questions, give feedback and hopefully ease some disappointment. The café in the theater is a darkly lit, low-to-the-floor semi-circled seating area sectioned off by columns. I sat with an interpreter and spoke to Japanese students. Each candidate sat across from me looking directly at me as the interpreter repeated my words (have you ever noticed that one word in English seems to be 10 in Japanese?). I reminded them that although disappointed, they should hold their head high and remember what accomplishments they had made thus far. Tears usually filled their eyes at that point, and I made sure they were happy tears, and I was assured they were. Each asked about what they needed to improve upon and seemed satisfied having had a moment to converse with a jury member.
Candidates who were eliminated took class throughout the morning, and partner schools watched and observed. The point of this is to allow directors to see them in class, evaluate them for offers to attend schools across the world, possible scholarships and second company offers. Claudio observed all semi finalists and made a list of students he wanted to meet speak with later in the day during the networking sessions. I sent him my list, and he worked from there.
The jury room sits outside the balcony area of the theater. The artistic director of the Prix, Wim Broeckx, has escorted us throughout the week with his assistant Phillipe, who manages our time, our meals, our coffee breaks and even bathroom breaks. We are asked not to speak to anyone and gladly abide by this request. We don’t want to make any suggestion that could lead someone to think we are prejudice in our judging.
The networking session began at 1 pm. Claudio met with students of interest and gave them packets of information about Houston Ballet. Some students might visit 5 to 10 different schools from around the world while others might see 3 or 4 during this networking time.
The jury met in a secured room, and we were given last-minute rules and regulations about the final selections. Audience members began gathering two hours before the start of the finals, which was a sold out performance.
3 pm came quickly, but as with any monumental experience in life–an opening of a new ballet, or a wedding or a birth of a child–I anxiously waited for the start, but I began to mourn the moment as I felt it passing so quickly.
We entered the theater in single file, but instead of sitting in the orchestra seats as we did the past few days, we sat in the balcony where we judged the final round of the 2010 Prix de Lausanne. The balcony gave us another vantage point that showed how well each competitor projected over the 2000 seat theater. Twenty candidates performed one classical and one contemporary variation each for the final round.
I knew Claudio was sitting somewhere in orchestra seats, and I am certain I could feel his heart beating throughout the entire afternoon, even from the balcony. We have sat together through many Prix competitions before, therefore I knew the anxiety he must be feeling. In the audience sat many “stars” of the dance world such as Nina Ananiashvili along with directors from many companies such as Ted Branson (Dutch National), Marianne Kruuse (Hamburg Ballet), and National Ballet of Canada to name only a few.
All three Houston Ballet students danced towards the end of the competition, which I was happy with so I could mark the other students and relax and enjoy our students. Those of you who watched the live feed on the Internet saw Liao take the stage with a calmness of a seasoned dancer. She looked beautiful and danced the same. Aaron looked tall and handsome as the Prince in Sleeping Beauty and executed his variation with strength and great composure. Emanuel’s smile delighted the audience as he awed them with his precise beats and balonne. I was pleased with each performance and kept my eyes glued to my score sheets, as not to impose on another judges’ marking which was very difficult I will admit. After a 15 minute break, we went on to the contemporary variations.
This year was different than the past regarding the style of modern choices. Competitors chose either one of Kathy Marsden’s organic contemporary pieces or one of Chris Wheeldon’s neo-classical (more balletic) variations. In the past, the contemporary variations were more similar in that most were done in bare feet. Chris Wheeldon’s variation choices for women were in point shoes. Regardless, students were judged on performance in class as well as on stage, therefore we were well-versed in their range of movement for both classical and contemporary work. Both were well-received.
Again our students took their place on stage with the kind of confidence you enjoy when you watch a dancer who is consistent and dependable. I was pleased and proud to see the level of professionalism.
With the scoring completed, we (the jury) stood and made our way back behind locked doors to do a final check and hand over our sheets to the tabulators. Imagine the sigh of relief, as we knew our job was finished. We could relax…well not really, as the wait for the results was intense.
Out came the results, and we were asked to vote to confirm what we was presented. Everyone seemed to be pleased with the results other than a few little surprises, but we were confident we had done our job successfully, and the winner fit the criteria asked of us all. At that moment, I could hardly contain myself. The only angst I had was of the results for Liao. She was so close to placing that I realized that one alteration in scoring on any of our parts would have changed that results for better or worse. I was “over the moon” that not only did I know that Aaron had placed 5th but the Emanuel would place 1st as the first Houston Ballet Prix winner. Only 37 other dancers in the world had earned that place, and his father was about to hear those results.
We touched up our make-up, combed our hair, and made our way back stage to wait for our introduction for the final announcement. I did not make eye contact with any of the contestants, and we waited while the Shanghai School performed and then Leanne Faye Benjamin (1981 Prix winner) and Edward Watson from The Royal Ballet performed a Manon pas de deux.
From the corner of my eye, I could see all the contestants lining up for the final moment. As a jury member, we stood cramped in the wings waiting to be introduced. We walked on stage in assigned order and took our places. The proceedings began, and I might add…all in French. I followed as best as I could.
The first announcement was the Suisse award, with the audience favorite to follow, which was Emanuel. The secretariat, Patricia Leroy, continued with the contemporary award and then to the six scholarships. Aaron ran forward as his name was announced with youthful excitement. The tension rose as the second candidate took his prize, and finally the first prize was awarded to Emanuel.
The audience clapped continuously, and it gave me great pride to see Emanuel offer up the applause to his fellow dancers as he invited them to join him several times bowing. I thought wow….he is so generous and he showed a great deal of class and professionalism.
The curtain closed and a sort of magnetic energy seemed to force all the candidates into a happy embrace. The cameras flooded in, and reporters speaking in several different languages began to force their way to the candidates. I exited the stage knowing that my job was done and that Claudio and Emanuel’s dad must be found. I tried furiously to call Aaron’s parents, but in the excitement, Aaron could not remember their new numbers–therefore that would have to wait.
I found Gustavo (Emanuel’s father) backstage in tears. There was no sign of Claudio. I took Gustavo to the stage and witnessed perhaps one of the most gratifying moments in my director life…he and Emanuel embraced, and Gustavo took his son’s face in his hands and for a moment the world stopped as he gave his son a look of such pride and approval. I had tears in my eyes myself and quickly went to find Claudio, as he could not miss this moment.
I located his black and white checkered shirt, yelled across the crowd, and summoned him to the stage. There was one of those “slow motion moments” as Aaron, Liao and Emanuel ran to Claudio and attacked him with hugs and kisses. Life does not get better than this.
I started to phone Stanton to give him the results, but there was no answer. I texted him next and he responded. I had forgotten he was in a company audition, but he graciously left for a quick call. “Congratulations to each of them,” he said, and “to you and Claudio–good job, the school is on the map!”
I hung up pretty darn proud, I will admit, and then the phone rang again. It was Sabrina Lenzi, who had coached Liao for the Prix since last fall. Her excitement, pride and congratulations for the school were evident in her voice, and then she made me laugh by acknowledging my great shoes! I had forgotten we were on live feed on the Internet.
I walked backstage to a party of parents, teachers, directors, press and the like. The moment quickly passed as reality set in. I was on the internet planning the kids’ train times for the next morning and saying my goodbyes to them all as we, the jury, headed back to the hotel for another dinner celebration.
The next morning at 6 am, Claudio escorted the kids back home. I arose to yet another meeting for partner schools and then returned to the hotel. I was so exhausted I could not find the strength to even shop (those of you who know me well know I must have been near death’s door!). I enjoyed room service that night and calls from C.C. Conner, Jim Nelson and friends and family.
I got up at 5 am on Tuesday morning to make my journey home–a taxi, a train, a plane, a tram, another train and then my final taxi to my home.
It does take a village to raise a dancer, and that is what Houston Ballet is all about. I am proud and grateful to each and every person who helped to make this moment just about as perfect as it could be.
One more note: to Liao, Aaron, and Emanuel’s parents, as well as all parents out there who support their child’s dreams, thank you. And finally to Houston Ballet board members, donors, and sponsors, thank you just does not seem enough. We hope you will come and enjoy watching our HBIIs dance in a future performance to remind you how much you do make a difference in all of our student’s lives.