A few names stand out in the world of ballet competitions, like the Youth America Grand Prix and the Prix de Lausanne. Most people probably do not know that Colorado has its
very own ballet competition. Started in 1982, the Young Dancers Competition (YDC) is open to Colorado residents ages 10 to 18 and is one of the longest running ballet competitions in the country. The YDC is organized and hosted by the Denver Ballet Guild and was founded by Guild members Florence Ruston and Beulah Cherne to support dance students in Denver. In the first year of the event, the Guild awarded $5,000 in scholarships and audience tickets cost $2. This year, almost 250 young dancers participated and a total of $25,000 was awarded in prizes and scholarships. Audience tickets were $10.
This year’s Young Dancers Competition was held March 6-8 at Colorado Heights University. Under the Artistic Direction of Monica Hill and coordinated by a volunteer committee headed by Guild member Pam Piro, the YDC provides young ballet students with an opportunity to take a master class with a nationally known teacher, perform a classical ballet solo in front of an audience, compete for scholarships and awards, and meet other dancers from across the state.
This year’s Master Teacher was Mr. Edward Ellison, Founder and Artistic Director of Ellison Ballet in New York City. Mr. Ellison is a former soloist with the San Francisco Ballet and has taught for the American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, Alvin Ailey and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet companies. He has been a guest artist with many companies in the United States and has traveled the world as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and ballet master. He believes the YDC provides an excellent opportunity for Colorado students to study with a teacher from another city, and says, “Instead of you going to New York, we bring New York to you. It is stimulating and inspiring for the students.”
The competition exposed students to other distinguished professionals in the ballet world. The YDC panel of visiting judges included Martine Harley (former soloist with the Houston Ballet), Irene Wozniak (former soloist with the Warsaw National Opera House), and Ilya Kozadayev (University of Oklahoma Dance Department and former principal with Columbia Classical Ballet, and soloist with Colorado Ballet and Houston Ballet). Mr. Kozadayev was himself a winner at the YDC competition several times while a student at the Academy of Colorado Ballet. The competition accompanist was Ritsuko Kubo, current accompanist for the San Francisco Ballet and school.
During the competition weekend, all students took a master class with Mr. Ellison. He was very popular with the students and an engaging presence in the classroom, asking students “What’s the point if you don’t do it with passion?” Eleanor Kim, who placed in the top five in Category III, loved attending Mr. Ellison’s Master Class, saying, “He pays attention to engaged dancers, who dance from the soul. He had a great sense of humor and made lots of eye contact with his students. I personally received many corrections from him and was asked to demonstrate a few combinations. What an honor! He taught us that ‘ballet is a language’ and that the best dancers have not merely learned the language, but really have something to say.“
Placing in the top tier of the competition can make a big difference for aspiring dancers.
Past YDC winners have become successful professional dancers, including Isabella Boylston, Principal with American Ballet Theatre, Chandra Kuykendall, Principal with the Colorado Ballet, Matthew Helms, soloist with Boulder Ballet, Michelle Dolighan-Rodenbeck, former principal dancer with Colorado Ballet, and Cara Cooper with Colorado Ballet. Kadin Mestas, a top senior male competitor in 2014, used the award to attend Juilliard’s summer dance program and then continued on to studying full-time at the American Ballet School. His mother, Tricia, believes the YDC was an important experience for him, promoting self-awareness, growth, and offering coaching for success.
The competition is worthwhile even for dancers who don’t place as finalists. Tyler, age 15, attended for the first time this year and said he made new friends and was glad he had come. Among other dancers, participating in the Young Dancers Competition is a long-standing tradition. Cathrine Lockhart, Director of Ballet Now, remembers how nice people were when she competed for the first time at age ten. Now Lockhart brings her own students to the YDC. “They have to work hard to learn the variation. The competition gives them a sample of the life of a professional dancer.”
Variations were selected from the “Year D Rotation” and included pieces from Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. A popular choice among the Category III (14-15 year old) girls was Diana’s variation from Esmeralda, Act II, Diana & Actaeon. Mr. Ellison noted that “it is an enormous challenge for students to learn a classical variation, work on it, and perform it on stage. Students make significant progress through this process, and also learn from watching each other.”
Based on the master class and preliminary variations, the judges selected finalists from each of five age categories. On Sunday afternoon, the top ten finalists in the 14-15 and 16-18 age groups performed their variations in front of a public audience, and the judges selected the top winners in each group for awards and scholarships. More than 30 finalists received cash awards, with larger sums of up to $2,000 going to the top senior dancers. Mr. Ellison also awarded three dancers with scholarships to summer intensive programs at the Ellison Ballet School.
The Guild established a new award this year for Category II dancers (ages 12-13) to honor the memory of David Parvin, a local artist and sculptor who donated his time, talents and services to the YDC for nearly 20 years. The inaugural David Parvin Award for Outstanding Young Artist was awarded to Anda Erdenebileg. Her family was particularly excited about this award since both her mother and grandmother once studied ballet but had been forced to stop by family pressures. Anda said of her award, “It’s a miracle! I did not know I’d get it! It’s my first time competing and I’m so honored”.
The top place in Category IV Girls and the 2015 Florence Ruston Award for Overall Excellence were awarded to high school senior Heather Capen. Heather has competed in the YDC for five years, and is the first dancer in its history to receive the Florence Ruston Award a second time. She performed a variation from Paquita (1 variation of demi-soloists) and said it was “upbeat and fun. I really enjoyed performing it.” Heather is trying to decide between college and dancing professionally after she graduates, but says no matter what, “I will always be dancing.”
The life of a dancer is all about discipline and routine. There is little time for resting on one’s laurels. When asked what she planned to do the evening after the competition, Heather said “I’m going to go home and eat and do homework and go to sleep.”
About the Denver Ballet Guild: The Denver Ballet Guild is a volunteer organization that celebrates and promotes dance through programs designed to develop local dance audiences, support dance students and dance companies, and conduct dance education. This year, the Guild awarded $80,000 in grants to local dance companies, and hosted 10,000 school children at live dance performances at the annual Showcase of Dance. The Guild has over 600 members and is open to anyone with an interest in dance. The Young Dancers Competition is funded by proceeds from the Guild’s annual signature fund-raising event, Le Bal de Ballet. For more information, visit https://www.denverballetguild.org/
Hilary Simons Morland: Hilary Simons Morland is a free lance writer and provides communications and grant-writing support to non-profit organizations. She is a life-long dance and theatre aficionado, and currently manages publicity for the Denver Ballet Guild.