The City of Tampa has been highlighted for its sports domination in recent years, the Tampa Bay Bucs are Super Bowl Champs, The Tampa Bay Lightning are Stanley Cup Champs, winning quarterback Tom Brady’s exodus from Boston to Tampa, but now the best and brightest youth of the ballet world are here. The Youth America Grand Prix Finals event, usually held in New York City in April, has relocated to The Lightning Capital for the 2021 Season, running May 9-16 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts.
Early Thursday morning, the sparks were flying with the announcement of the selection of Final Round Competitors for the Junior (ages 12-14) Women. A total of 35 exceptionally talented young dancers from the US, Canada and Mexico were selected to compete in the first act of YAGP’s Junior Women’s Gala at The Straz later this evening.
Like always, there were the expected well-known names and schools, and the surprises, the little-known hidden gems who have been toiling through the rough pandemic ballet landscape to make it here. This exceptionally tacit group of young women have been patching together their preparations for this evening’s competition between the quarantine zoom training days of last spring, virtual summer intensives, and now COVID testing and protocols developed by YAGP to keep everyone safe and healthy.
Crystal Huang (12) The Rock Center for Dance, NV.
Samantha Striplin (12) Peninsula School of Performing Arts, CA
Aurora Kellogg (12) Southland Ballet Academy, CA
Sofia Angelov (12) Independent, CA
Kennedy Kahler (12) Nevada School of Dance & The Rock Center for Dance, NV
Adelina Belusko (12) Pennsylvania Ballet Conservatory, PA
Isabel Yoder (13) Next Generation Ballet at the Straz Center, FL
Bella Jones (13) Elite Classical Coaching, TX
Isabella Howard (13) Nevada School of Dance & The Rock Center for Dance, NV
Ayva Royster (13) The Dallas Conservatory, TX
Madison Bevilacqua (13) Timothy M Draper Center for Dance Education, NY
Sarah Savage(13) The Art of Classical Ballet, FL
Aubri Parker (13) Pavlova Professional Coaching, TX
Charlize Hardwick (13) Bayer Ballet Academy, CA
Anya Donaghy (13) Evolve Dance Company, CA
Laina Mae Kirkeide (13) The Ballet Clinic, AZ
Elizabeth Feung (13) Morningstar Dance Academy, GA
Taylor O’Meara (13) Master Ballet Academy, AZ —
Audrey Beukelman (13) Denver Academy of Ballet, CO
Nina Hohlt (13) Master Ballet Academy, AZ
Sienna Morris (13) Ballet Conservatory at Skyra, FL
Isobel Lehman (13) Master Ballet Academy, AZ
Isabella Meier (13) Elite Classical Coaching, TX
Isabella McCool (13) St. Lucie Ballet, FL
Natalie Steele (14) Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy, CA
Paris Vigos (14) Illinois Classical Ballet, IL
Maya McDaniels (14) Mid-Atlantic Center for the Performing Arts, MD
Juliana Wilder (14) The Art of Classical Ballet, FL
Yana Geneva (14)Ballet Conservatory at Skyra, FL
Aaliyahmarie Key (14) Maryland Youth Ballet, MD
Valeria Franco (14) Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC
Gwyneth Smith (14) Nashville Ballet, TN
Aurora Chinchilla (14) Independent, FL
Amira Hogan (14) Vitacca School of Dance, TX
Fiona Poth (14) Dimitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy, CA
The entire ballet world is grateful to the City of Tampa, The Straz, and YAGP for collaborating to give us a shining beacon that ballet continues to thrive and grow in this new post-pandemic world. We can’t wait to see the energy that this group brings to the stage tonight.
Some of the standouts of the night:
Crystal Huang opened the evening with a killer version of Harlequinade in a bright red tut. Nailing her turns immaculately this little girl packed a punch. Elizabeth Feung from Morningstar gave one of the most technically clean performances of the night. Everything was extremely placed, aligned, and delicate. Another great surprise of the night was how many “commercial-competition-turned-ballerinas” made it to the final round; Dancers like Izzy Howard, Sienna Morris, Kennedy Kahler, and Crystal Huang. I think if we look at a lot of American professional dancers, we see those who started in comp dance have a fire and tenacity that a lot of European Dancers don’t have. And, not to mention the fact that ballet is moving very contemporary, I definitely think that there is an advantage to having that competitive background.
Both young ladies who competed with Talisman gave performances that would rival a lot of professionals.
Natalie Steele from Dmitri Kulev came out with legs for days, but what was crazier is when her shank gave out towards the opening and she just danced on it like it was nothing. Isabella McCool from St. Lucie Ballet gave a very different version of Talisman, a very spicy version in an ombre skirt. I don’t think there were many surprises on who was selected for the final round, as most of the kids come from heavy hitter YAGP schools. I think one of the most delightful surprises was Aaliyahmarie Key, who comes from Maryland Youth Ballet. MYB hasn’t really taken very many students to YAGP since YAGP’s First Position, but she was definitely an unknown. Her port de bras (arms) were classic and extremely clean, her pointe technique was also pretty killer, but no surprise as she was coached by Olivier Munoz, a former YAGP judge turned new director to MYB. Master Ballet Academy from Arizona and the Rock Center for Dance from Nevada, had the most students represented with three each.
This year the energy was very different, as each final round is separated by gender and age, so watching the Junior Females gave a very feminine feeling, and I thought was more fair to see girls separate from the boys. The evening definitely showcased the dancers and each school’s coaching. Elite Classical’s Bella Jones and Bella Meier gave stunning lines, clean port de bras, and showed very adage quality. Gwyneth Smith from Nashville Ballet and Audrey Beukelman from Denver Ballet Academy definitely gave very acting/expressive performances with extremely expressive port de bras and genuinely sublime acting capabilities. Fiona Poth, also from Dmitri Kulev, definitely delivered both the artistry and the technique in Awakening of Flora. This was the perfect way to end the Junior Female Final Round, something feminine, age-appropriate, and gave us both technique, line, musicality and artistry.
I think my only comment was that because the female variations are all on the more adage side of life, it was harder to sit through, especially when the music was slowed down too much. However, what was appreciated was how many smaller principal and soloist variations made it into the final round, and we didn’t have to sit through extremely long five-part variations, so it was nice only having three-part part variations to keep the evening moving. Sienna Miller took the 3rd act Lilac Fairy, Laina Kirkiede took the Diamond Fairy from Sleeping Beauty, Bella Meier took Paquita 4. But this was definitely the year of Coppélia, as it was appreciated, as I don’t think I could make it through another year of Esmerelda or Satanella.
Finally, I think the thing that I was most impressed with, was the ability to stay in shape during this pandemic and bring a level of dancing that rivals any other year at YAGP. These kids have killed themselves for this, and it shows. Everyone was excited to be there, be in a beautiful theater, and enjoy an evening of ballet, celebrating children, their dedication, and their passion for the art form we all love so much.
You can view the final round here, and decide who your favorites were and who you think is in the running for the coveted Youth America Grand Prix award, places 1-3, and top 12. Send in your predictions.
Photos taken by Star Action Shots.
Photos courtesy of Youth America Grand Prix