Ballet competitions are a way for young dancers to make their presence known in the ballet world, to win prizes and scholarships and be seen by company directors. Among the most prestigious are the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., and the Varna International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria. The Youth America Grand Prix, in New York, is the focus of Brookline native Bess Kargman's documentary "First Position," which opened this past May and follows six young dancers as they strive to reach the 2010 finals.
For the past two years, we had our own such event: the Boston International Ballet Competition, the creation of Valentina Kozlova, a former principal with the Bolshoi Ballet and, later, New York City Ballet. Kozlova is the director of the Dance Conservatory of New York in Manhattan, but she chose to bring her competition here because, as she told me last year, "I have a special weakness for Boston, for Massachusetts, for New England. Boston makes my heart very warm; I love the city. It's very small, very compact; everything is very accessible.
"You have big culture," added Kozlova, who recruited Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen to head the competition's seven-member jury both years. "You have a good ballet company, a very good ballet company, and a very big ballet school, so obviously there was interest there."
It appears, however, that there wasn't enough interest. In late October, Kozlova announced that the contest, following "two successful editions in Boston," is now called the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition. And it is, as its website trumpeted, "relocating to New York City, the dance capital of the world!" Next year's competition, Kozlova said in a press release, "will be held at the end of June, in the Lincoln Center area, where New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre have their homes."
Over the past couple of decades, people have lamented that Boston is no longer a tryout town. Apparently in this case it was.
Kozlova, when I reached her in New York, was apologetic. "I really had a great time in Boston, and Mikko supported me a great deal, and in that regard I am very sorry. I love Boston; I love Boston Ballet. But financially speaking it was a very big strain for me to be in Boston," she said. "I did try for two years. But I have my headquarters in New York. I had to bring all my people from New York, the hotels, the transportation, and all of that. So that was a big problem, and we didn't have that many people in the audience."
I asked Nissinen whether he was surprised when Kozlova told him she was moving the competition.
"In one sense, no," Nissinen said. "I mean, I think she initially thought Boston was a really ideal place, because it's East Coast central, there's a major company, and it could be a big attraction. But after having done it these couple of times and realizing it didn't really pull the local audiences, she decided to try another market."
It's our loss. The two editions in Boston — at John Hancock Hall in 2011 and the Cutler Majestic Theatre in 2012 — were successful on most counts. While spectators were scarce, some 90 dancers from around the world, ranging in age from 13 to 25, competed each year. The jury included former Bolshoi star Andris Liepa and, in 2011, former Boston Ballet artistic director Violette Verdy. Contestants in the three divisions — student, junior, and senior — performed excerpts from the classical repertoire and short contemporary pieces of their own choosing, plus a required contemporary piece. The prizes were generous: $9,000 apiece for male and female senior winners in 2011, $5,000 in 2012, plus scholarships and company contracts. Each competition ended with an award ceremony and a gala with performances by the winners and guests from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.
I attended both editions and was impressed by the quality of the dancing. So was Nissinen. "I think the level of the talent was so much better than in some other competitions," he said, noting that he had hired this year's female gold medal senior winner, South Korean dancer Seo Hye Han, who's now a Boston Ballet corps member. "Valentina definitely was able to attract quality contestants, which is always the issue. A competition is as good as the people in it; if you don't have talent, then it's very difficult to do anything with it. I think in that sense, they did very well."
In 2011, the competition was held over four days in mid-May, Thursday through Sunday, with the gala on Monday; in 2012, it was compressed into three days in mid-June, with the finals Sunday morning and afternoon and the gala Sunday evening. Ticket prices were extremely reasonable: $25 for the competition rounds, $35 to $100 for the gala. But publicity was sparse, and the houses for the competition rounds appeared to be only half full.
Nissinen was sympathetic to the problems of marketing, and noted that building an audience can be a slow process. "How do you get the word out? Do you have a marketing budget? How big is that budget? How far will it go? That is always an issue," he said. "And then sometimes it takes several years before people realize what the thing is and have more interest in it."
Kargman, the documentarian, underlined that last point. "The prominent ballet competitions around the world took years to become as established as they are today," she said.
Nissinen added, "When you start something like this, you pretty much individually carry the whole financial burden. You start looking at how much money the prizes were — Valentina funded all the money pretty much out of her own pocket. That's a lot of money for an individual. And I think she found surprises in some costs related to the theaters and things like that. She did her very best."
I asked Kozlova whether better attendance would have enabled the competition to remain in Boston. "It would have helped," she said. "We still would have needed more donors, but if we did have a full house, that would have helped tremendously. But it did not happen. I was surprised, because in New York, if you stage some sort of ballet competition, there are lots of people in general coming from all sorts of schools. And I know that Boston has many ballet schools, and that's why I was surprised that they were not there. Maybe it was the wrong time of year to do it. Maybe the kids had their own finals."
It's true that May and June are transitional months on the Boston arts calendar. It's also likely that if Kozlova had been able to spend more money on publicity, more people would have shown up. But what the competition really needed, and what Kozlova couldn't give it, was a year-round local base, and a founder with better local name recognition. "I think if I was in Boston," she speculated, "if I was working in Boston, if I had danced before in Boston, I think it probably would have been a different story. But I was not there."
Might Boston Ballet sponsor a competition at some point? Nissinen was doubtful. "We already do so many things, from outreach to all the things with the school," he said. "I don't think a competition would make sense. I don't think it would make sense for any professional ballet company to organize a competition, to be honest."
Kozlova, however, said she is not ruling out a role for Boston in the competition's future.
"Competitions also can travel," she pointed out. "There could be a New York branch and a Boston branch. It was in my head to have this sort of competition in different locations, not only in the United States but in the world. Boston just needs a little bit more time. I'm not able to do a competition next year in Boston the way I did in the past two years because it's hard for me to bring people from New York to sponsor and support. I have to have local people. But I will continue to do the competition, and hopefully one day we will be able to return to Boston."
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffrey