The Twelfth International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize
Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
November 15, 2016
by Denise Sum
Copyright © by Denise Sum 2016
The Erik Bruhn Prize is a highlight of the Toronto dance calendar. The international competition has been held every one to four years since 1988. Bruhn created the prize to be awarded to one male and one female dancer between the ages of 18 and 23 who, in Bruhn's words, “reflect such technical ability, artistic achievement and dedication as I endeavored to bring to dance.” Dancers perform a classical pas de deux and a contemporary work and are judged individually. In 2009, a choreographic prize was added. This year, the competition was hosted by National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Jillian Vanstone.
Photo: Angelo Greco and Natasha Sheehan of San Francisco Ballet. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.
The Bruhn Prize is quite unique among the myriad international ballet competitions which seem to be proliferating by the minute. The participants are already dancing professionally in a company and are hand-picked by their artistic directors. For each competition, four or five companies with which Bruhn was closely associated are represented. For this year's competition, the participating companies were: American Ballet Theatre, The Hamburg Ballet, The National Ballet of Canada, The Royal Ballet, and San Francisco Ballet. In previous competitions, The Royal Danish Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, and Boston Ballet have participated. The list of past winners is impressive, with many going on to distinguished careers, among them, Silja Schandorff, Johan Kobborg, Julie Kent, and Friedemann Vogel. For the audience, the Bruhn Prize provides a rare glimpse of some of the brightest rising stars of the ballet world. For the participants, this is a special opportunity to represent their company on an international stage, learn and have extra coaching in a classical pas de deux, and work closely with a choreographer creating a new work.
The competition begins with the classical repertoire, where tried and true gala fare tends to predominate. In general, the young dancers looked more at ease in their solo variations and were more stiff in their partner work. This is not altogether surprising, as some of these partnerships may have been quite new. The NBoC and The Royal Ballet both ambitiously performed flashy grand pas de deux, but came across as somewhat cold and rigid. The NBoC dancers, Calley Skalnik and Félix Paquet, performed the famous pas de deux from "Le Corsaire". Skalnik started with an assured, confident presence. She looked relaxed in her variation, and she reached impressive heights on her jumps. But in the coda, she was not secure on her leg during the fouettés. From the start, it was clear she would not complete them, despite her determination. She switched to a series of piqué turns instead. Paquet was a strong partner, ensuring that all the overhead lifts went smoothly. His variation was solid, with good momentum on the manège. Chisato Katsura and Harrison Churches of The Royal Ballet chose to dance the wedding pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty". Katsura has a beautiful line and strong technique, but her dancing was affected, with distracting mannerisms. She frequently tilted her head back, distorting the line and bringing her gaze to the ceiling instead of the audience. The adagio looked acrobatic, as every developé or back bend was exaggerated and taken to an extreme. One was reminded of the phrase, "just because you can, does not mean you should". Churches was clean and elegant, though his dancing lacked the gravitas of a true prince or danseur noble.
ABT was represented by Cassandra Trenary and Gabe Stone Shayer in the Bluebird pas de deux from "The Sleeping Beauty", staged by Alexei Ratmansky. It was a treat for Toronto ballet goers to be able to see an excerpt of this restored version based on Petipa's original 1890 staging. The rise of competition culture tends to favor higher extensions, more turns, and bravura choreography to impress the audience and judges. How refreshing, then, to see this staging of the Bluebird pas de deux with nary a cranked up leg or flash of tutu underside in sight. Of course, without those distractions, the dancers had to pay even greater attention to fine details, which they did. Trenary has gorgeous feet which she articulated skillfully, and delicate yet sharp port de bras. Stone Shayer truly soared through the brisé-volés, while landing softly without a sound each time. During his variation, he subtly tilted his head side to side while flapping his arms on the assemblés, making the movement much more bird-like. Trenary and Stone Shayer had a lovely chemistry and really danced together, as opposed to alongside one another.
Rounding out the classical portion, were The Hamburg Ballet in the pas de deux from "Flower Festival in Genzano" and SFB in the Act 2 pas de deux from "Giselle". Hamburg's Madoka Sugai and Christopher Evans were a delight. Sugai's bright expression and unadorned style, coupled with Evan's splendid ballon, perfectly captured the joy and exuberance of Bournonville's choreography, and of young love. SFB's Natasha Sheehan and Angelo Greco managed to go beyond the steps and bring pathos to the pas de deux from "Giselle". The petite Sheehan, the evening's youngest participant at 17 years old, danced with a maturity well beyond her years. She appears to have an astute intuition for timing. Her phrasing was smooth and continuous; she filled the music and used space intelligently. Greco was a remorseful and compelling Albrecht who took risks and danced expansively, while never breaking from character.
In the contemporary repertoire, there was much variation in terms of concept, choreographic style, and music selection. Marc Jubete of The Hamburg Ballet created "Remember" with music from Jeremy Arndt and Max Richter. Both his choreography and the performance of it were very strong. Initially, the stage is dark and the music is percussive. Evans is standing, while Sugai is hidden behind him with just her undulating arms visible, in an image that brings to mind Hindu iconography. Later, the music becomes more lyrical and haunting. The pair tenderly moves together, perhaps reliving the past. The choreography shows off both dancers' remarkable facility and musicality with alternating frenetic passages and pregnant pauses. In the end, she vanishes as quickly as she appeared, while he is left grasping the air.
ABT's Jeffrey Cirio's somber "The Story of..." was also very coherent and musical. Set to the music of Rachmaninov, this was an androgynous duet. Trenary and Stone Shayer wore simple matching black pants and soft shoes. The movements were intense and athletic, almost architectural in their precision. The dancers attacked the steps with control and were in unison during segments where they danced side by side.
The NBoC and SFB's pieces were the most traditional of the bunch, working within a mostly classical idiom and with the women wearing pointe shoes. The NBoC dancers performed "Self and Soul" by Robert Binet, set to a lush soundscape from ambient music duo Winged Victory for the Sullen. Skalnik and Paquet committed to the work, but the general feel of the piece was somewhat overwrought and excessive. It did not feel like Binet had much to say in this particular ballet, other than "here are some beautiful bodies making beautiful shapes in space." Myles Thatcher's "Foragers" set to Lizst for SFB fared better, but still felt a bit like one 6 o'clock position after another. However, there was more suggestions of a relationship between the two dancers, which felt warm and affectionate.
Finally, the Royal Ballet's contemporary piece by Calvin Richardson brought some levity to the evening. "Good People" starts with a backstage view of Katsura and Churches facing an imaginary audience, taking their bows at the end of a performance with their backs towards the actual audience. The moment the "curtain" goes down, they hunch over and promptly climb out of their costumes. There is no music, but rather voice overs of their musings on life and dance, in turn humorous and endearing. Things get meta as they speak about the experience of preparing for this competition itself. It is a pleasure to see Katsura and Churches show their personality and knack for physical comedy and mime. The dancers then change into loose pajamas. The tone then shifts from them dancing separately, to dancing dreamily together as soft, meditative music by the band Nest plays.
One would be hard pressed to find an evening of ballet with more variety than what was presented at this competition. The overall caliber of the performances was excellent, with so many promising young artists from North America and Europe. As for the results, the Erik Bruhn Prize went to SFB's Natasha Sheehan and Angelo Greco and the choreographic prize went to The Hamburg Ballet's Marc Jubete.
Photo: Marc Jubete of The Hamburg Ballet with Natasha Sheehan and Angelo Greco of San Francisco Ballet. Photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic.