When, oh when, did ballet become a competitive sport? The performing arts developed from man’s in-built desire for an expressive emotional outlet and were surely never intended to make combatants out of their participants. Another facet of man’s innate needs, that of our requirement to establish hierarchy within a group, has made a battle for supremacy out of many pursuits, including classical dance: it’s big business now, with high stakes but sometimes questionable values.
On the surface, ballet competitions are marketed as platforms for young dancers to expand their performance experience while being exposed to the discerning eyes of school and company directors, with elusive scholarships and contracts up for grabs.
Scratch the surface, and the realities aren’t so straightforward. Most have a pre-selection stage, where dancers are heavily scrutinised on their physical attributes: this directly mirrors the audition scenario of most companies, but to impose this level of body-fascism on young dancers, most of whom are still in vocational training, could be detrimental. While having the requisite facility to go through a full classical schooling is important, seeking out those dancers who have something approximating the “ideal” ballet body, has, in my opinion, little to do with dance, and may, in the future, have devastating effects on the practice of ballet.
Over a short space of time, such as the timeframe under which these competitions are conducted, it is difficult to impose hierarchical structure on a group. In the setting of a company, over months and years it becomes apparent who the most consistent and reliable performers are – hallmarks of true professional dancers. These qualities are not apparent from watching a few classes and some variations, and ultimately it’s difficult not to assess the dancers based on their relative technical and physical capabilities: surely a dancer who can turn more, or with nicer feet will score higher than their peers in such situations. At this juncture I should point out that my knowledge of the scoring of ballet competitions is zilch, but the results generally speak for themselves: the males are full of slick bravura and the girls all bulging insteps and wild extensions.
Some of these competitions have professional divisions, where company members get international exposure, which is entirely appropriate. That you may see a 10 year old on one stage dancing the same Flames of Paris variation as a professional on another isn’t. I agree that it is important to get dancers on stage early, to get a feel for the craft, it really shouldn’t be about dancing principle variations from the get-go: dancing a solo from a pre-approved list admittedly makes the job of the jury easier, it can sometimes smack of kids beauty-pageants – what can a 15 year old bring to the role of Albrecht or Giselle except their technique and body?
Though there is scant evidence to support it, it is widely known that Mr. Balanchine was not a supporter of ballet competitions and didn’t want his variations to be performed in them. The Prix de Lausanne seems to be the exception. Mr. Balanchine saw ballet as a physical expression of beauty, for enjoyment on its own merits, not as an arena for an artistic tug-of-war. However, when you look at the structure of the ballet company, it’s hierarchy already suggests competition: the Paris Opera Ballet even uses adjudicated competition (the annual Concours) to promote dancers up the ranks.
With such competitive stratification evident in the oldest ballet institution in the world, the ballet competition seems like a natural rite-of-passage for young dancers hoping to break into the professional ranks. Companies support them as there are rich pickings for new talent, schools too as it is a showcase for their training, but as much competition as there is within a ballet company, we (dancers, schools and companies) would do well to remember that this art form of ours is about physical and emotional expression, not about who is number one.