Young dancers show winning form


   Ballet has been a competitive art ever since the first ground glass was slipped into the first toe-shoe -- and probably long before. Organized competitions, especially on the local level, are a more recent phenomenon.
   The annual Youth Dance Festival of New Jersey, which convened for the second time Saturday and Sunday at the Bergen County Academies auditorium in Hackensack, is riding this trend. Competition fever has trickled down from the international, Olympic-style events in Varna, New York and Lausanne (among other cities), and it has bubbled up from the commercial dance convention circuit.
   Dance competitions have serious critics, who say they encourage youngsters to strive for flashy effects. Measuring artistic skills by awarding gold or silver trophies appeals to people who find art too mysterious to understand otherwise, thus broadening the audience for dance. At the same time, applying a legible scale of values to dance performances upsets some aesthetes who hold a romantic view of artistry as something imprecise or indefinable. These romantics may actually treasure the vagueness of perception and emotional stimulation that they associate with watching dance.
   Competitions have a civilizing effect, however, which seems undeniable. They supply a needed antidote to the isolation of dance teachers and their students at a time when young people are studying dance in increasing numbers. Competitions offer young artists performance opportunities and a place to network and learn valuable lessons through master classes and workshops. Competitions promote excellence by setting standards. Much depends on the way a particular event is organized.
   The Youth Dance Festival of New Jersey is still modest in scale. Yet with an international star like former Bolshoi principal Leonid Kozlov at its helm, and with the presence of such notables as Carolyn Clark, Christine Dakin and Katherine Healy on the jury, not to mention master classes by jazz legend Luigi, this event has the potential to expand and supply a helpful focus for the dance community in New Jersey and beyond.
   The festival already has attracted nearly 200 participants, including groups from Pennsylvania and Texas -- and even one dancer from London (Lorna Iosekvitch, in the junior category, who performed Rimsky-Korsakov's "Dance of the Bumblebee" as a yellow-caped crusader buzzing around the stage.) To reduce the stress of competition, and the ground-glass factor, Kozlov has arranged for all participants to receive certificates of merit and helpful corrections from the judges.
   The closing ceremony and gala performance on Sunday also supplied these youngsters with some top-notch examples of professional artistry in a variety of styles, as dancers from New Jersey Ballet, Battleworks and Buglisi/Foreman Dance took the stage.
    Romantic passion was characterized as a release of tension in the balcony scene from Johan Renvall's "Romeo and Juliet," fluidly danced by Mari Sugawa and David Tamaki, but similar emotions produced the tautly coiled figures of Jacqulyn Buglisi's "Sospiri," with Helen Hansen and Junichi Fukuda as the expiring lovers.
    Virtuosity took the form of multiple pirouettes on pointe and high, split leaps in the "Flames of Paris" pas de deux, dazzlingly executed by Gabriella Noa-Pierson and Albert Davydov. Or it was reflected in Robert Battle's finicky response to rhythm in "Takademe," with George Smallwood as the fractured soloist. Smallwood returned with Samuel Roberts in Battle's comic duet for prowling panthers, "Strange Humors."
    Competitions may suggest that art acquires value only in a balance-scale, but these performances


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