Posted on March 20, 2019
February has always been an exciting month for me. My birthday falls at its start; Valentine’s and Pancake days usually add further cause for diversion (though Shrove Tuesday makes a later appearance in March 2019). Since I’ve spent successive Februarys stateside, my appreciation for pop culture standouts like the Super Bowl, Golden Globes and Oscars ceremonies has only grown. For ballet lovers, the prestigious Prix de Lausanne also takes place in February and, though I’ve never taken part in this international competition, I’m spending time this month thinking about its role in our industry and how the annual event serves us all, whether we’ve participated or not.
I’m not really sure when I would have first heard of the “Prix” – as it’s warmly referred to amongst dancers – but I can remember the thrill of seeing footage of my favourite dancers performing at the competition in their youth. In 2010, the BBC showed footage of Darcey Bussell dancing the first female variation from the Act I pas de trois of Swan Lake at Prix de Lausanne in 1986. The contrast between fresh, coltish youth and sophisticated, strident performer at the peak of her powers in Kenneth Macmillan’s Song of the Earth – the work Bussell retired from The Royal Ballet with – left an impression.
Similarly on YouTube you can find footage of Federico Bonelli, aged 18, at the competition, Friedemann Vogel charming us as a teen, and Alina Cojocaru showing impressive physical urgency that you can’t quite believe comes out of her otherworldly frame. It’s confirmation to any young dancer that transformation is always possible: years of hard work reap stunning benefits and witnessing any dancer’s metamorphosis over the years is intoxicating.
Friends who have competed in the competition tell me what a rewarding and memorable experience it proved to be – and how these received benefits interact with the idea of a subjective art form being assessed like an Olympic sport is worth thinking about. Yes, what happens on the stage at finals is relevant. How technical application and the proper coordinating of limbs in a split second play against all sorts of other variables is just as exciting as watching a Nadal tennis match, but this is only one strand to the competition, and definitely not the keystone.
At the competition’s inception in 1973, the idea of ensuring the dancers’ future development as people was promoted above the successful execution of technical theory. It was central to the founders of the week-long event, Philippe and Elvire Braunschweig and Rosella Hightower, in deciding how a grant contributing to the winners’ further training and artistic development was given. It betrays the Prix’s uniquely sensitive outlook. Once these competitors are done with their dancing careers, they’ll become the teachers, choreographers and directors of the future. Positive, rigorous and enlightening experiences at this formative level will bear fruit in years to come.
What interests me is how robustly the competition seems to examine itself, mirroring the constant self-evaluation of a practising dancer. Over its history and under various directors, the competition has recognised a need to update scoring and assessment. In 2000, the introduction of a contemporary prize and the evaluation of a young dancer’s “global potential” in 2004 shows the competition responding to a changing industry. Some of my most treasured memories over the last eight years have been working with coaches on pieces of repertoire. These individuals see you at your rawest and help navigate a pathway through the psychology of a dance phrase. The Prix endeavours to give competitors the same experience when they are preparing their classical and contemporary variations with distinguished coaches.
With a strong focus on physical and mental well-being, the competition has established itself as a meeting place for the industry. I know some people disagree with the idea of sending young teens off to competitions, but I think the Prix’s function as a place to forge strong cultural alliances across borders is imperative. It’s a way to assess standards and figure out what state of health the art form is in. For many young dancers, it’s a way out of their immediate surroundings: competitors from as far afield as Australia or Asia are given access to an area with such a rich and deep association with a French, Baroque art form.
How ballet has changed, and continues to open up is something that should be celebrated. Live online streaming of the week’s classes and the final performances adds another layer of immediate engagement for an immeasurable group of spectators that would never fit in the Beaulieu Theater, the location of the Prix’s final in Lausanne. Opening up access to the competition using technology, like the first televising of it on Swiss television in 1974, and subsequently in Japan, is partly responsible for the competition’s continued success, and pre-empts audiences increasing appetite for additional content today.
Though I’ve spoken of the Prix’s open, inclusively progressive esprit, there is a reverence for heritage and past winners. This year marks the 47th edition of the competition, and it’s final was hosted by Deborah Bull, former principal dancer with The Royal Ballet and a Prix laureate in 1980. I think it’s vital to be showing dancers as responsible, intelligent, communicators in these kind of roles. The event ran a series of films of former winners critiquing footage of themselves. Leanne Benjamin made cogent remarks that the criticisms she would give herself at that age are the same areas of special attention she had to constantly work on over the breadth of her career.
When you watch this year’s audience favourite Mackenzie Brown’s articulate account of the Third Shade’s solo from La Bayadère, you wonder what she might say when she looks back on the footage in 30 years. Though there is much surprise and variety in a dancer’s life, as they say in the other official language of the Prix de Lausanne, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”.
Main image: Dancers at this year’s Prix de Lausanne, with Mackenzie Brown, left. Photograph by Gregory Batardo