YAGP Junior Final Round

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time of year…. Youth America Grand Prix Final Rounds have arrived once again in Tampa, FL. Another season of hard work, tenacity, wins, losses, heartbreaks, and success stories is entering its last chapter.

While this is normally the end of the YAGP season, and we are able to sit back and relax for a bit, the conclusion of this season marks the beginning of YAGP’s Silver Jubilee Season celebrating 25 years of amateur ballet excellence. For nearly a quarter century, YAGP has placed thousands of dancers at the top schools and companies around the world, and has awarded millions of dollars in scholarships. This year is no exception to that record of excellence.

YAGP’s recent work with displaced Ukrainian dancers, dancers in need of financial assistance, cash prizes, and scholarships to some of the most coveted schools has once again reinforced YAGP’s reputation as the largest and most respected ballet scholarship competition in the world.

When the lights dimmed at Morasani Hall at the Straz Thursday evening at 7:30 for YAGP’s Junior Final Round, 50 females and 25 males ages 12-14 had been selected to compete. Judges representing The Royal Ballet School, John Cranko School, Princess Grace Academy, American Ballet Theater JKO, European School of Ballet and more were poised to usher in the world’s next young generation of young ballerinas.

Leading up to tonight, favorites this competitive season had been closely watched at YAGP Semi-Finals and other world competitions, including those who qualified for the upcoming USA IBC competition in Jackson, MI, alongside others who have received the coveted Youth Grand Prix award at a YAGP Semi-Final.

As we were minutes away from the Junior Final Round, judges, scholarship presenters, YAGP staff, sponsors, excited competitors, and nervous parents filled the four levels of the theatre. These 75 dancers were competing for the chance to change their lives. Winning a scholarship to one of the presenting schools could launch a career at an affiliated company, and bring these young dancers one step closer to their dream: a professional contract.

The night opened with the youngest competitor of the evening: Maria Qixin Tian (12) from MorningStar Dance Academy, Georgia, USA. She danced the Diana variation from Diana and Acteon.

The first big standout of the night was Mikaela Cameron (12) from A&A Ballet dancing the mazurka variation from Paquita. Cameron received the Youth Grand Prix Award in Paris this year, and is a current ABT National Training Scholar.

Another big standout of the evening was Chae Yeon Kim (12) dance the variation from La Esmeralda from Lee Wonju Ballet Academy, South Korea. Landing the first big impressive turn of the night with four pirouettes, this young dancer was not only a technician but her musicality and nuance was amazing.

From Japan, Rio Enami (13) dancing Raymonda from Aristo BALLET STUDIO, Japan was costumed brilliantly in a body-con long sleeve, rhinestoned tutu. Technically strong, facility-gifted, and stunning, she did this adage variation with ease.

The next big stand out was Ana Lorenza Blanco Peniche (13) also dancing La Esmeralda from Chasse Ballet Mexico. Her body line was gorgeous, and a YAGP favorite this season, her version of Esmeralda was tasteful and refined with a little latin flare. She is also a Grand Prix winner this season and an international scholar for the Royal Ballet School.

After intermission came the heavy hitters for junior women:

Instagram star, Crystal Huang (14), danced a tricked out version of La Esmeralda from Nevada School of Dance and the Rock Center for Dance, NV, USA and was obviously a crowd favorite.

Clara Riggs (14) pulled out 4 pirouettes effortlessly numerous times in La Fille Mal Gardee. This young lady also has made California’s prestigious spotlight competition representing Orange County powerhouse school Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy, CA, USA. She also won a Youth Grand Prix award at her semi-final heat.

Another SoCal powerhouse, Samantha Striplin (14) danced the Odile Act III variation from Swan Lake with flare. This young lady comes from Peninsula School of Performing Arts, CA, USA. Normally, I am not a fan when juniors attempt black swan, but Miss Striplin danced the variation with ease, charisma, and drama. She is also a Youth Grand Prix recipient from her semi-final heat.

Following the junior girls came the junior boys, and truthfully there wasn’t much to stay. Boys are not held to same standard as girls and the difference between a junior boy and a senior boy is quite large, the gap in training and discipline is also large. So, these 12-14 year-old boys did their best.

The standout boy the evening was a standout from last year, Brasil’s Joao Pedro dos Santos Silva who danced the cavalier variation from The Nutcracker from Balé do Teatro Escola Basileu Franca, Brasil.

But the star, in my opinion, of the night was Chae Eun Lee (14) who danced the etoile variation from Paquita from the Yewon School, South Korea. This young lady doesn’t look like a student, but walked on stage in the most breathtaking tutu, and danced with a maturity, elegance, and a quality that one has to be born with.

Now time for predictions:
(these are just my opinions based on the night’s performances)

Youth America Grand Prix Award: Chae Eun Lee, South Korea (Korea)

Junior Women:
1st: Samantha Striplin (USA)
2nd: Clara Riggs (USA) or
3rd: Ana Lorenza Blanco Peniche (Mexico)

Junior Men:
1st: Joao Pedro dos Santos Silva (Brasil)
2nd: Eric Poor (USA)
3rd: Dante Minassian (Australia) or Make Shimizu (Japan)

Awards will be announced Sunday, April 9, 2023

Photos courtesy of YAGP and LK Studios
Photos from the front: LK Studio
Cover photo: Jennifer Wingrove for LK Studio