Seventeen-year-old ballet dancer Helena Ross came home from Tokyo Wednesday with more than a major international prize.
She returned with the understanding that "preparation isn't everything--how you relate to your partner also counts," and she got a firsthand peek at international cooperation between the United States and China, and later between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Dancing at the last minute with a Chinese partner she never met before, indeed with a man who knows only a few words of English, the principal female dancer of the Long Beach Ballet won a special "Individual Excellent Performer" Award at the International Ballet Competition in Osaka last Friday.
At her home near downtown, within sight of Shatto Park where she first took ballet classes at age 4, Ross recounted her frustration when she arrived in Osaka for this year's competition--limited to pas de deux partnerships--only to discover that her longtime partner, James Joize, wasn't there. As the first round drew near she feared she would have to withdraw.
(Ross said Wednesday that she still does not know what happened to Joize, a fellow student at Tanya Riabouchinska Lichine's studio in Beverly Hills. "He simply disappeared," said her mother, Maria Marjay Ross. At her studio in Beverly Hills Thursday, Lichine said she also does not know where Joize is. "Somebody else told me he went to New York, but I don't know, and he didn't return his plane ticket.")
When Ross' predicament became known at the competition, the head of the Chinese delegation, a man whose name she does not know, told her through an interpreter that he wanted to offer her a substitute partner--Yao Ping Zhu, a leading dancer with the Central Ballet of China--"in a spirit of true cooperation in the arts between China and the United States."
"He (Zhu) is tall, 6-foot-3, curly-haired and strong-bodied," said the 5-foot-6, 110-pound young woman, who wears her braided brown hair in the traditional dancer's bun. They were able to communicate, she said, "through ballet motions and (a kind of) sign language."
As dancers, "we played off each other," Ross said. "We worked well on stage. We seemed to fit into a mold. We were like a horse and rider."
Despite the language barrier, Ross and Zhu found they had some things in common. Both have danced key roles in "Nutcracker." For the second year in a row, Ross will dance as the Sugarplum Fairy at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Christmas Eve, while Zhu will dance one of the lead male roles in Peking. (Ross will also dance the same role at the Terrace Theatre in Long Beach on Dec. 12, 13 and 19.)
Even when Zhu came along, Ross' path was not smooth. At one point she even ran afoul of Yuri Grigorovich, the director of the Bolshoi Ballet and chief juror.
In the first round, Ross wanted to dance a scene from the ballet "Esmeralda" but Zhu was better prepared for the pas de deux from "Giselle" so she gave in. Altogether they had an hour's rehearsal. They had to work with "low 8-foot ceilings," she recalled. "We couldn't do our usual jumps."
For the second round competition doing a scene from the Russian ballet "Le Corsaire," the Chinese had offered her another partner. She was ready to go on when Grigorovich insisted that competitors had to dance with the same partner. Ten minutes before competition began, the Chinese once again produced Zhu, and the pair had 20 minutes to rehearse.
Ross, who had been coached for the event by Lichine and by former Bolshoi dancer Alexander Godunov, recalled that they were the "last to go on" nearly two hours after the competition began. Grigorovich, she recalled, looked "shocked" and "furious."
Ross said she does not believe Grigorovich knew of her connection to Godunov, but did recall that when the Chinese first told her they would come to her aid, she was told not to notify the Russians.
However, several Russian dancers and coaches came to her aid when she danced with Zhu a third time in the modern Russian ballet "Spring Waters." The pair decided not to compete in the classical portion of the third round.
"I was dumbfounded," she said when her name was announced for the best single dancer award.
One of these weeks, "when we both finish our 'Nutcrackers' " Ross said she wants to write to Zhu. She wants to show him around Los Angeles when the Central Ballet comes back here next year.
Although Ross was not the main winner--first prize went to a Russian couple (Anna Kushnereva and Victor Yaremenko)--her career appears to have taken a leap. Already she has been invited to participate in Japanese arts festivals and has been told to apply to the Bolshoi Ballet's school.
Asked whether she would want to eventually dance with the Bolshoi, she replied: "Oh no! I am an American."