WORCESTER — Young ballet dancers took to the stage Thursday for the first day of the Worcester semifinal of the Youth America Grand Prix.
The four-day competition, running through Sunday, is part of an international audition process for scholarships to ballet schools around the world. Semifinals are held in 45 locations worldwide, with finals scheduled for April in Tampa. About 400 scholarships totaling more than $500,000 are given away annually.
“It is the greatest networking forum for dancers in the world,” said Grand Prix judge Peter Stark, who is also president and director of Philadelphia’s The Rock School for Dance Education and former associate director of Boston Ballet II.
Stark likened the Grand Prix to a “business convention” that allows dancers to be seen by a variety of school and company directors in the ballet world. Students can receive scholarships to summer and year-round programs like the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, the Royal Ballet School, and the Paris Opera Ballet School. In rare cases, some may even get job offers and be hired to companies.
Almost 500 dancers ages 9-19 will audition throughout the weekend in classical and contemporary categories at The Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts in Worcester. The classical ballet auditions are available to watch live via YouTube.
During the semifinal, the auditions are organized by age division and category. About two to four dancers from each of the pre-competitive, junior, and senior age divisions from every semifinal location move to finals, for the opportunity to win a scholarship. However, some dancers may be awarded scholarships during semifinal events at the discretion of the on-location judges or school directors who are watching remotely through the livestream, all before finals.
The event also includes masterclasses, held Friday through Sunday, taught by semifinal judges. Giuseppe Bausilio, a judge and Grand Prix alumnus, said masterclasses are ways for the dancers to be exposed to different possibilities.
Participating in the Grand Prix impacts dancers beyond the prizes, according to Stark. The Grand Prix doesn’t have a preselection process to determine who gets to audition, which creates a “gamut of training experiences” during the semifinals, he said.
“There are several dancers who don’t actually win that have a more life-changing experience because of these connections that are made [during the semifinals],” Stark said.
Dance instructors find that bringing students to the Grand Prix helps expand their aspirations.
Thiago Silva, the school director of Ballet Central New Jersey, has 13 students auditioning this weekend. Silva said the competition especially makes an impression on very young dancers because they observe each other dancing.
“They get to see different steps that they haven’t learned yet because they’re so young, and they start to actually practice. They get more motivated to do more,” Silva said.
Katrina Smedal, a ballet teacher at Studio for the Living Arts Dance Complex in Maine, said her students get to reconnect with dancers from other schools that they met in past Grand Prix competitions.
“We love coming down here so our dancers can see dancers from outside the state and be inspired by the talent,” Smedal said.
More than 12,000 people audition for the Grand Prix every year, according to a press release. The organization calls itself the “American Idol” of ballet.
For dancers such as 12-year-old Chloe Wang, who studies at N&D Ballet and was a finalist in 2022, the audition itself is quite simple.
“I just enjoy myself onstage because it’s only two-and-a-half minutes to show the judges everything I have,” Wang said.
Dancers can register as soloists or in ensemble groups or both. For the classical category, they pick from Grand Prix’s recommended repertoire, but can choose their own pieces for contemporary, with the option to audition in both categories. Soloists, like Wang, have two-and-a-half minutes to perform before the judges, while ensemble groups have slightly longer.
Like the participants, the judges often vary in their professional background — from current performers to school and company directors — which allows for a range of opinions, said Stark. “Different people are looking for different things ... in terms of age and movement quality, musicality,” he said. But overall, they are united by a love of dance.
“I’m delighted by the gumption, by the drive, by people’s commitment to classical ballet,” Stark said.
Abigail Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.