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National Ballet of Canada's 2011 competition for young dancers deep in talent

Ninth International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize

  • American Ballet Theatre, Hamburg Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Royal Danish Ballet and Stuttgart Ballet
  • Four Seasons Centre in Toronto on Saturday

Public opinion and professional opinion are two very different things, at least when it comes to this year's Erik Bruhn Prize. The audience-choice awards were completely different from the official judges' selections.

The Ninth International Competition for the Erik Bruhn Prize, as the evening is officially called, was established to encourage young dancers between 18 and 23. The late danseur noble was artistic director of the National Ballet (1983 to 1986), the company that administers the prize.

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Each participating company sends one female and one male dancer who perform both a classical and contemporary pas de deux. At the last Bruhn competition in 2009, the Choreographic Prize was added for best original work.

The judges are the artistic directors of the companies, or their representatives, and they can't vote for their home teams. The official winners this year were Maria Baranova, 18 (Hamburg Ballet), and Joseph Gorak, 21 (American Ballet Theatre). Stuttgart Ballet's Demis Volpi won the Choreographic Prize.

The brand new Audience Choice Awards (audience members were given time to pull out their cellphones and text for their favourites) went to Stuttgart dancers Elisa Badenes and Daniel Camargo. The best choreographer went to the National Ballet of Canada's Robert Stephen.

So why the disparity between the judges and the audience? My guess is that the judges were looking at the totality of the dancer, both in terms of technique and artistic interpretation. The audience, on the other hand, was likely wowed by flash and dash.

Hamburg's Baranova was a big surprise for the audience. She performed the Giselle Act 11 pas de deux and John Neumeier's Chopin Dialogue with partner Kiran West. Baranova doesn't have a flashy bone in her body. Rather, she is a quintessential ballerina, a class act armed with formidable technique, whether as the ghostly Giselle or part of an angst-filled relationship. She understands interpreting character.

ABT's Gorak was probably the most consistent of the male dancers. Right from the start, he showed a forceful, manly presence in Bournonville's Act 11 pas de deux from La Sylphide with partner Christine Shevchenko. Unlike Russian bravura with its showy tricks, Bournonville is all about clean and controlled jumps and turns in any direction, and Gorak was masterful.

Then, in Nicola Curry's Divergent Connectivity, Gorak was called upon to execute both extreme musicality and precision cuts through space. He was simply splendid.

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It wasn't difficult to predict that the Stuttgart dancers would wow the audience with their bravura performances in the virtuoso Don Quixote pas de deux from Act 111, one of the showiest in the Russian imperial style established by Marius Petipa. What the audience may have ignored, but the judges did not, was the lack of chemistry between the two dancers, despite being technical wizards, particularly Camargo.

On the other hand, Badenes and Camargo did connect somewhat in Volpi's quirky Little Monsters. The judges rewarded Volpi's choreography for the way he used Elvis Presley songs to express a couple's break-up through staccato touches and body distortions. I felt, however, that the piece never developed beyond the clever initial idea.

Rather, the audience got it right with Stephen's Passacaglia, performed by the National's Shino Mori and Naoya Ebe. Set to music by Handel and arranged by Johan Halvorsen, Stephen portrayed a vibrant couple with hormones ranging, shown through lightning fast, playful touches. The piece grew in excitement as Stephen layered in increasing speed and intricate footwork. It's a classy and clever piece.

Among my favourites were the Royal Danish's Shelby Elsbree and Jón Axel Fransson. She is adorable and feisty; he cuts a charming figure on the stage. Both are excellent dancers.

And that provides another explanation for the disparity between the judges' and audience members' opinions: This year's Erick Bruhn Prize sported a particularly strong field.


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Maria Baranova Best Female Performance (Hamburg Ballet) Born in Lohja, Finland

"My original partner Alexandr Trusch was injured and I didn't think I was going to be able to compete. I was desperate. Kiran West was put in to partner me, although he wouldn't be part of the competition. He learned all the choreography in just six days. The best moment for me was dancing Giselle in this beautiful theatre. I felt a really tight connection with the audience. It was like no one wanted to breathe, they were so quiet and into the dance."

Joseph Gorak Best Male Performance (American Ballet Theatre) Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana

"Just before our first pas de deux, I had a serious attack of doubt, but I worked it through. That's why I tried not to watch the other competitors. I think our repertoire was designed to show off different skills. In La Sylphide, it was the emotional contact with my partner, and getting into character. In the contemporary piece, it was the fierce attack that the choreography demanded. "

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