On 29 October Jann Parry saw RAD's Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition 2023
The competition formerly known as the (Adeline) Genée returned to London after a hiatus because of Covid restrictions. It was held for the seventh time in the competition's 92-year history in His Majesty's Theatre, formerly known as Her Majesty's. The opulent 1,216 seat theatre houses Phantom of the Opera during the week, so the stage was framed by Phantom's grandiose proscenium arch and decorated wings – a potentially daunting experience for this year's young finalists: 12 out of 79 competitors from 15 countries. The theatre was packed with supporters, teachers, dancers, and invited VIPs, abuzz with chatter.
Surprisingly, almost all the finalists were from Australia, New Zealand or Britain. To qualify, they needed to be trained in the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus by qualified teachers and to have passed the RAD Advanced 2 exam with Distinction. Most of the candidates were aged between 16 and 20 – the youngest, Lucia Moore, who won the Silver Medal, is 15. For the Sunday night final, the 12 competitors were required to perform twice: first, a short solo (under two minutes) choreographed by themselves, their teacher or a peer student, then a classical variation. They remained anonymous, identified only by numbers on their costumes and in the programme lists.
In the Dancer's Own category, it was evident that the young men had more opportunity to display their talents than the young women, whose solo had to be on pointe. Choreography for each of the eight female finalists tended to be classically based, with quirky flourishes and a minimum of floor work. Olivia Moulsdale's dramatic solo for herself was a notable exception. The four men were able to employ more contemporary-style moves to pounding music, all recorded. I liked Ben Moss's solo (his own choreography) because he expressed his joy in dancing rather than the non-specific angst of other contenders. Jakob Wheway Hughes stood out because of his theatrical assurance and the height of his leaps (choreography by himself and his teacher, Antony Dowson).
In the Classical Repertoire category, girls essaying variations from Paquita, Raymonda and Corsaire were handicapped by piano accompaniment at tricky tempi. Those who fared best were Indira Mayrani in Giselle's Act I solo and Lucia Moore in Paquita variation II, who were both musically and technically assured. Once again, the men fared better in rousing variations from Swan Lake, Raymonda and the gala number, Satanella, the timing of their jumps and spins easier to get away with than precarious pointework. The demanding nature of the classical variations exposed how young and unfinished the competitors were.
After an interval, and while the judges (Darcey Bussell, Amanda Britton and Aaron Watkin) conferred, the audience was entertained by a commissioned work from Valentino Zucchetti and a solo by Caspar Lench, a recent Royal Ballet School graduate who is now an Aud Jebsen Young Dancer apprentice with the Royal Ballet. He had performed the solo, Takademe, in the School's annual Opera House matinee in July, after learning it during lockdown. He was coached via Zoom by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater member Kanji Segawa, who learnt it from its originator, Robert Battle, Ailey's artistic director. An explosive solo to Sheila Chandra's kathak-influenced vocal music, it served as a showcase for Lench's charismatic personality. Already an award-winner as a student, he outshone the RAD medal contenders of his age group.
Zucchetti, a Genée winner in 2006 and Royal Ballet First Soloist is establishing himself as a choreographer for large-scale productions as well as workshops. He was asked to make an ensemble piece for all the candidates so that they could experience the creative process before performing together in His Majesty's Theatre. Zucchetti, faced with scores of young women and a handful of men, turned to Balanchine's solution for the same problem in Serenade. Jeunesse, set to Mendelssohn's Octet in E flat major, brings on the women in waves, arranges them in ever-changing patterns, and interlinks them in chains and canon formations. The men partner as many women as they can, featuring brief pas de deux with a frieze of dancers lined up behind the couples – a device from Zucchetti's Anemoi for the Royal Ballet. Jeunesse happily fulfils the challenge he was set, with a recurring motif that echoes Balanchine's ingenious use of tendus.
Before the prize-giving, the RAD's mission statement that ‘Everyone can dance' was spelled out on screen in film clips. Everyone in the audience could vote for their favourite dancer, who turned out to be Zai Calliste (number 6, aged 18), ‘nationality Australian/English/Caribbean'. He was also a bronze medallist, along with Ed Cooley (no 3, aged 17) from Australia. The silver medal went to Lucia Moore (no 4, aged 15) from New Zealand and the gold to Jakob Wheway Hughes (no 12, aged 16) from Britain. Because the medal winners are so young, the general feeling in the excited discussions afterwards was that the awards were for promise rather than accomplished polish.
Jann Parry, former dance critic of The Observer (1983-2004), has written for many publications as a freelance, and has contributed to radio and TV documentaries about dancers.
She is the author of the award-winning biography Different Drummer, the life of Kenneth MacMillan (2009).