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After a year off stage, 2021’s Youth America Grand Prix is more than just a competition for young dancers

Dancers rehearse on stage as hundreds of dancers auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix at the Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts. Considered to be the "American Idol" of ballet, the dancers performed before a group of judges in hopes of receiving scholarships to top school and companies.
Dancers rehearse on stage as hundreds of dancers auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix at the Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts. Considered to be the "American Idol" of ballet, the dancers performed before a group of judges in hopes of receiving scholarships to top school and companies.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Saturday was the first time 12-year-old Clementine Perrott of Holliston had danced on stage in more than a year.

“I was a bit more nervous because of the risk,” Clementine said. “But it felt really good to be there in person.”

Clementine performed her two solos, Bluebird from Sleeping Beauty and the Don Quixote Cupid variation, Saturday morning at the Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Worcester. Like the 200 or so other young dancers who are performing there this weekend as part of the Youth America Grand Prix competition, Clementine is hoping to get a head start on her dream.

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“I want to be a dancer,” she said, emphasizing that her favorite form of dance is ballet.

The organization aims to give dancers ages 9 to 19 opportunities to perform and further their dance education. Each year, more than 12,000 young dancers perform at the Grand Prix’s competitions for scholarships to top dance schools around the world, making it the largest competition of its kind.

Boston is one of the 35 international locations that hosts these semi-final competitions. While young performers in New England have always headed to Boston to compete in the Grand Prix, the pandemic caused organizers to look elsewhere for a bigger space suitable for social distancing.

Juliet Dong gets encouragement from her ballet instructor Alexandra Koltun, right before her named was called to dance on stage as hundreds of dancers auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix at the Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts.
Juliet Dong gets encouragement from her ballet instructor Alexandra Koltun, right before her named was called to dance on stage as hundreds of dancers auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix at the Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“Before we could have an audience full of dancers, parents, and teachers supporting each other. That isn’t the case this year because of the health and safety regulations,” said Sergey Gordeev, founding director of external affairs for the Youth America Grand Prix. “Health and safety is the most important thing, after all.”

Most audience members have been watching the performances from their homes through a live stream on the organization’s website. The last day of the regional competition is Sunday, with dancers scheduled to take the stage from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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Only a few dancers are allowed inside the theater at at time, and they must wear masks up until the moment they head onstage. But a fair share of the dancers — including Clementine — kept them on even during their performances.

“I’m used to it though,” she said.

Many of these dancers have been unable to perform or train in person since the start of the pandemic, Gordeev said, making this weekend even more special than usual.

“When a dancer couldn’t dance anymore, and now they can, it is such a release of joy and gratitude,” he said. “All the kids are so emotional about it, since it’s a performance after not being to perform in over a year.”

Karine Plantadit is a Tony-nominated actress and former dancer who has judged Grand Prix competitions for 20 years. She said the performances this year have been affected by the pandemic in a way unlike anything else she has seen before.

“I’m in awe...” Plantadit said. “[The dancing] has a different quality to it, and if we continue to explore, there is a different way of dancing that can come of it.”

Dancers from the Greenwich Ballet Academy in Greenwich, Conn., rehearse their dance before they performed in the Ensemble Competition of the Youth America Grand Prix.
Dancers from the Greenwich Ballet Academy in Greenwich, Conn., rehearse their dance before they performed in the Ensemble Competition of the Youth America Grand Prix. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Performers who practiced in confined spaces while stuck at home are readjusting to performing on stage, Plantadit said, and dancers wearing masks have to rely on their bodies more to convey the emotion that can’t be seen on their faces.

“That doesn’t affect their expression though because dancing is something you can feel whether a mask is on or not,” she said. “And dancing here instead of their living room is special.”

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Plantadit said she saw impressive performances right off the bat Saturday morning, but only 10 dancers will be able to move on to compete for top scholarships at the finals in Tampa, Fla. from May 10-16.

About $4 million in scholarships have been awarded since the Youth America Grand Prix was founded in 1999. According to the Grand Prix’s website, 450 dancers who participated in the organization have gone on to dance at the American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, and other renowned schools and companies across the globe.

Dancer Bella Choi does a flip on stage during her performance, as hundreds of dancers auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix.
Dancer Bella Choi does a flip on stage during her performance, as hundreds of dancers auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

While fewer dancers performed this weekend, Gordeev said those who did show up heightened the competition in their own way.

“One thing that happened as a result of COVID is that the dancers who continued dancing are the ones who are really committed...” he said. “It made them realize why they’re dancing, and it made them dance with more passion, more commitment, and more joy than ever before.”

“There is no room for in between,” Plantadit said. “We need those kinds of artists because our humanity needs that authentic artwork right now.”

A dancer waited her turn as she watched from off stage.
A dancer waited her turn as she watched from off stage.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly misidentified Clementine Perrott. The Globe regrets the error.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.