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YGP Philippines keeps the art in ballet alive

By Ricky Toledo and Chito Vijandre, The Philippine STAR Published Oct 16, 2023 5:00 am

There was a palpable energy on the first day of the Youth Grand Prix (YGP) Philippines at the lobby of the Samsung Performing Arts Theater as mothers fussed over their young ballerina daughters and teachers and coaches gave tips to their promising danseurs. A babel of languages could be heard from participants who hailed from different parts of the country and from Asian neighbors like Singapore, China, Malaysia and Taiwan; as well as from the directors who flew in from all over the globe. Inside the theater, Luca Masala, director of the prestigious Princess Grace Academy of Monaco, was “cracking the whip” to perfect those tendus in the master class that morning.

This is the second edition of the regional semi-finals of the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), tripling in attendance from last year’s, confirming that the Philippines and Asia are serious about dance and can compete globally, observations that had already been conveyed to the YAGP (Youth America Grand Prix) head office by Stella Abrera, a longtime ambassador and cultural hero for the Philippine and Asian communities that take pride in her being the first Filipino ballerina to be appointed as principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater (ABT), among many other accomplishments.

Katherine Earl Nuñez, Steps Dance Studio Philippines, 1st Place Senior (Ages 15-20) Contemporary

Giving the love back to her home country, Stella has made education an advocacy, from providing educational supplies to typhoon victims in Samar to dancing with her ABT colleagues to raise funds for CENTEX schools and discovering Filipino dancers for ABT scholarships. She now returns as the artistic director of the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and one of the judges of the competition, together with Larissa Saveliev, co-founder and artistic director of YAGP.

Tsai-Ching Chang of Zhongli Youth Ballet Taiwan, 1st Place Pre-Competitive (Ages 9-11) Classical

Stella and Larissa were both visibly excited with the turnout. It is Larissa’s first time in the country and judging from the master classes that morning, there were already standout dancers that she and Stella noticed and no doubt were also eyed by the other judges which included Masala; Gennadi Saveliev, Larissa’s husband and co-founder who is the ABT Studio Co. Ballet Master; Sergey Konstantinov of the Australian Ballet School who trained at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg; and Giuseppe Bausilio, a YAGP alumnus who is now a Broadway star.

Gennadi Saveliev, YAGP co-founder, giving a master class

“More than a competition, it’s a network,” Larissa shared. Stella added: “It really provides many opportunities for dance education. Imagine all these institutions represented here – All these kids would never have had access to them all at the same time.” It’s also a chance for them to be discovered not just by the dance companies present, but even those all over the world who tune in to the streaming online.

Hana Takahashi, Cheng Ballet Academy Singapore, 1st Place Junior (Ages 12-14) Classical

YAGP started in 1999 as a need when Larissa was teaching ballet while Gennadi was dancing with ABT. Accustomed to festivals in Russia when they were dancers at the Bolshoi, they met with dancers and teachers to compare techniques but they found that such an event did not exist in the US so they decided to create one. “The fastest way for a dancer to be discovered was through competitions which were only for adults and professional-level dancers. There was no annual forum for pre-professional dance students to be exposed to the directors of schools and ballet institutions that could develop their talent through scholarships,” Larissa recalls.

Tiffany Jocelyn Ong, Hope Academy of Dance Philippines, 1st Place Junior (Ages 12-14) Contemporary

With semi-final rounds across the US joined by the most promising students and the top institutions, the first year was such a great success that the forum went international in the second year. Today, it’s the world’s largest dance network and student ballet scholarship audition, reaching 15,000 dance students annually in 32 US cities and 15 international locations worldwide with workshops, auditions, master classes and scholarships that have resulted in more than 450 YAGP alumni now dancing with 80 companies including ABT, New York City Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, the Royal Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet and many others.

Adia Luise Miguel, Steps Dance Studio Philippines, 1st Place Senior (Ages 15-20) Classical

Larissa clarifies that “not all become professional dancers later but I still feel we are giving them an education to make them better human beings. They grow as persons as they grow as dancers.”

Ultimately, it boils down to having a reverence for the art form. This is why a foundation of the classics in dance is important even as we constantly try to push the envelope and create more and more innovative works.

Pia Colby, chief marketing officer of Globe Telecom, which has been supporting the competition, could not agree more, sharing her 13-year-old daughter’s experience at the Royal Academy of Dance in London: “The fortitude and grit that ballet instills helped her a lot to be disciplined and get things done. Now that she’s in university, it serves her well.”

Charlotte Simone Ng, Cheng Ballet Academy, Singapore, 1st Place Pre-Competitive (Ages 9-11) Contemporary

Discipline isn’t something easy to come by during this age of TikTok. Although Larissa was apprehensive at first about social media, it has actually worked in YAGP’s favor: “What we were doing was beneficial so it just spread word much faster.” It has also been a tool so that students and teachers around the world can see the classes and lectures.

“The culture of the long game is harder to instill. Kids are impatient, they want to be prima ballerinas at age 12!” says Stella, who observes how the many likes on IG lure them to instant gratification without putting in the work required in class. “I always tell students, social media may help your career, but it is not your career,” Larissa laughs.

Danier Laganzo of Steps Dance Studio Philippines, winner of the Grand Prix (given for getting the highest scores in both classical and contemporary categories) for the second year in a row

“Ultimately, it boils down to having a reverence for the art form,” says Stella. “This is why a foundation of the classics in dance is important even as we constantly try to push the envelope and create more and more innovative works.”

At the competitions, there was a good representation of classical works as well as original contemporary pieces. There was some really outstanding dancing and innovative choreography where you just marvel at the beauty of ballet.

Steps Dance Studio Philippines “Obstacle Course,” 1st Place Ensemble Category

“It’s really an art form that we have to keep alive for the next generation because it’s just too special,” Larissa concludes.

On the final awarding day, the dancers onstage looked fulfilled and proud, whether they were to win or not. They worked hard rehearsing for months and gave their best in their performances, after all, and learned a lot from the masters. Not to mention that they made many friends and enjoyed the camaraderie, while seeing how they fared beside dancers from other parts of the world.

Scholarships from ABT JKO School, Princess Grace Academy, Australian Ballet School, The Rock School of Dance in Pennsylvania and Stuttgart Schule Germany were some of the prizes awarded, with many more handed out and delivered later by email.

The STEPS Dance Studio Philippines Team: Jeffrey Espejo, coach; Joshua Saagundo, STEPS scholar; Sofia Zobel-Elizalde, STEPS founder and director; Lance Saagundo, STEPS scholar; Angelo Kyle Tungol, CENTEX/STEPS scholar; and Jun Saagundo, modern dance coach.

Sofia Zobel-Elizalde, founder and director of STEPS Dance Studio, shared how the competition made a big difference with her students who had rehearsals the day after the awarding: “They danced so much better, a lot cleaner, with better lines and stronger!”

As Giussepe Bausilio reminded dancers at the closing ceremony, “The only competition that matters is the competition with yourselves. As long as you continue dancing and growing, the possibilities are endless.”