Winning doesn't necessarily involve a cash prize or a gold trophy, say the five Southern California hopefuls bound for the International Ballet Competition beginning June 16 in Jackson, Miss.
"For me, (the jackpot) is a desperately needed job," says David Andrade, the oldest--at 26--among the local contingent pressing for some kind of victory and career boost at this prestigious annual contest, being held for the third time in the United States.
The Jackson meet is one of the four world-class competitions (the others: Moscow, Tokyo and Varna, Bulgaria). It draws a gold-plated group of dance arbiters and this year is being overseen by a committee that includes Oleg Vinogradov of the Kirov Ballet and Robert Joffrey.
"I go to Jackson the way one would go to a major marketplace: looking for an employer--a company director who might offer me a contract," Andrade explains. "And you can bet there will be plenty of those casting a watchful eye. Most of all, I want a ticket out of here."
But Helena Ross, 15, a gifted student who enjoys advance university admittance, takes an aggressively idealistic stance, declaring that she wants to strike a blow for Southern California and "attract notice to the local talent. If, by doing that, we could bring powerful patrons here, I wouldn't have to desert Los Angeles in order to have a ballet career."
A quiet Kevin Lamar fits somewhere between these two extremes. A personable Cheryl Dickens definitely sees the competition as a chance for exposure. And a shy Tina Ou, seven years away from her native Taiwan, seems eager for any and all prospects.
Pooling their resources, at the instigation of various teachers, directors and parents, the five are gathered downtown at the Fringe Theatre, in the heart of warehouse row. This afternoon, they are scheduled to offer a public preview of their competition numbers--mostly classical and caractere variations along with some original choreographies.
For now, however, the contestants arrange themselves in a semicircle in the makeshift studio, intent on further exploring the whys and wherefores of competition in dance.
David Wilcox, who directs the Long Beach Ballet and is lending his sponsorship to the sweepstakes seekers (all but Andrade are members of his company), points out that "dance is no longer a sacrosanct art form" and therefore can find its way to a contest format.
"Let's face it: Technique has become the be-all and end-all of performance," he says. "Dance approximates athletics in many ways now. So why shouldn't those with the right stuff compete for recognition on that basis, just as Olympic champions do?
"I also feel that the act of getting up for the event spurs dancers on, makes them better. Without competition--and there's plenty of it in the classroom--no one would have the motivation to try hard."
Just getting to Jackson has involved a lot of trying hard, according to all five. Andrade, whose only means of transportation from his rented room in Pasadena is a bike, talks about being "flat broke" and says that "if nothing happens for me there I'll return to unpaid bills."
"But I just have to escape this ballet ghetto. A city where the Joffrey has to paper the house (give away tickets) and the Kirov sells out all six performances is a city to run from. It's too competitive--in the wrong way."
As for contests and their potential benefits to a career, he has no misgivings. Rather, it is the auditions held by touring companies that he holds in contempt.
"They are bogus," Andrade declares, "just a ploy to make the locals happy and a way for these performing organizations to secure grants. If a dancer gets picked up at one of these auditions it's either a miracle or a token. They're not really looking for anybody."
A veteran of several regional ballet troupes (in Sacramento, Tulsa, and Phoenix), as well as several in Los Angeles, Andrade has also studied acting, piano and violin. He has tried his hand at choreography, photography and modeling, too.
"I have several things going for me in Jackson," says the slight, dark-haired dancer whose relatively late start took place at 17. "(I have) a maturity that translates into stage presence. A thick skin--the kind you get from being kicked around a lot--and a technique that makes me fearless."
The others talk about team spirit, however. They particularly like going to Jackson as a unit.
"Just imagine what it would be like for Olympic teams not to have their coaches along and their support systems in place," says Ross. "I just came back from the Prix de Lausanne and the Genee Competition in London (making it to the semifinals in both cases). But this trip gives me a better sense of identity than those did. I really envied the Japanese in Lausanne. They had the essence of a team."
Ross debunks the idea that she will be competing against her own "team members," by saying "I can root for them, too, and feel rewarded if they win something."