Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School students Aviana Adams and Anwen David no doubt have learned scads about grace on the stage. But they had a terrific lesson about grace under pressure when they headed for the Prix de Lausanne in Switzerland a few weeks ago to compete among the best students in the world and having had time to reflect and rest, shared their experience.
Avi and Anwen set out for Europe with different perspectives. Anwen, who has family near London, had crossed the Atlantic before. It was Avi’s first trip out of the United States and she barely slept, opting instead to watch the sun rise from the plane and Tweeting about it to friends.
With a bit of time to kill, Avi (with mom Janet Popeleski) and Anwen (with mom Caroline) hooked up to walk around and get to know their surroundings, full of picturesque houses and, of course, the majestic Alps. Then they went to register (where Avi pulled out some “rusty” French) and warm-up.
Surprise! The studio floor was raked, just the same as the performance stage. As it so happens, the Byham Theater has a raked stage, but the ones at Lausanne were three times the angle, making it decidedly more precipitous to execute pirouettes and, in particular, a menage or series of turns in a circle where pique turns could push upwards then swoop downwards. (FYI: Raked stages, found primarily in Europe, were set at an angle or “rake” so that the audience could see better. In other words, upstage definitely meant that the performer went upwards. And downstage? Obviously a ballet could take on some aspects of a roller coaster.)
Everyone reacted differently. Anwen confessed that, at first, she felt like she was going to fall off the front section, “but that got better as the week went on.” Avi called it “surprisingly lovely” and better than the Byham, which can be tricky because the dancer could forget the slight rake. She noted, “I think I liked it because it was drastically different. With the Lausanne studio you didn’t overthrow your balance. It was a lot easier to turn in my opinion.”
The pair immediately began to make friends, particularly those girls in the 15-16 age group who shared their dressing room. They came from Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and, yes, America. “Everyone was so friendly,” said Anwen. “I was worried that they might be competitive and pushy, but they were all really nice and happy to meet people.” Avi agreed. She became “fast friends” with New Zealander Alex Cambie. It’s a world where Facebook rules.
The girls had both classical and contemporary classes before they hit the stage, time enough to get used to the spotlight, according to Anwen, with “nine judges and directors from all around the world, cameras and video cameras, all these people watching every little thing you do.” Avi noted that “we were like deer caught in the headlights.”
Things started to settle down, although Avi got tangled with another dancer while feeding into a combination during a contemporary class. She went down and hurt her wrist, forcing her to withdraw from the competition. (A fast healer, she was hoping to have the cast removed today.)
So Avi turned her considerable energy to observing all the girls’ individual coaching sessions with mom. She saw much attention paid to the pirouettes, where the coach was looking for the dancers to “pull up more right before you land.” She also found some “trigger words” that helped her understand corrections. One was “to take the light with your chest” when the dancer finishes a step or uses a porte bras.
Anwen, in the meantime, got six minutes to take in those corrections, twice with former Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer Monique Lourdieres and once with contemporary choreographer Cathy Marston. She didn’t get through the whole piece with Cathy, although that was true of most of the contestants. Monique helped her with her Italian fouettes and menage, which were difficult on the raked stage, and encouraged her to use “more personality.”
But evidently the judges and dance notables were impressed by her, because even though she didn’t make the finals, Anwen came home with four scholarship offers from Hamburg Ballet School (Hamburg Ballet, whose artistic director, John Neumeier will be presented at PBT in his production of “Streetcar Named Desire” next year), Mannheim Academy of Ballet (Mannheim Ballet, whose artistic director, Kevin O’Day, choreographed several ballets for PBT), Basel Dance Academy and the National Academy of Dance, which is affiliated with the Dutch National Ballet (and whose artistic director, Christopher Powney, sat on the judges’ panel).
Avi came back strengthened by the whole experience, but recalled “how everyone takes the bus and there’s very little pollution. You can fill your water bottle from any tap and it’s okay to drink it — I definitely miss that!” She’s already planning for next year.
As far as advice for those who might consider the competition option?
Anwen said “not to worry about the competition part of it. Try to really enjoy it and learn as much as you can and just have a good time.” Avi added that future competitors should be present about “every single detail and every single correction. But more importantly, dance. Don’t think about what you’re doing, just dance and relax. RELAX.”
It sounds like they both listened to their own advice. But they apparently learned one more thing — how to show grace in an interview as well.