(Photo by Mike Castillo/Studio West Elite, courtesy the Gelfer-Mundls)

Thirteen-year-old Aviva Gelfer-Mundl has it all: picture-perfect lines, polished pointe work and a delicate port de bras that conveys maturity beyond her years. So it’s no surprise she was the 2014 Youth America Grand Prix junior gold medalist. What is a surprise is the fact that Aviva has only been dancing for three years. Before that, she was busy being a two-time national champion in rhythmic gymnastics. In 2012, just seven months after making the switch to ballet, Aviva placed in the Top 12 at YAGP Regionals in L.A., and the following year, she took home the Hope Award at YAGP in San Diego. This fall, after spending the summer on scholarship at the San Francisco Ballet School, Aviva moved from her hometown in Tustin, CA, to Toronto to continue her training at Canada’s prestigious National Ballet School.

"People say I become a different person onstage. The moment I make my

entrance from the wings, I feel like I’m in a new magical world. I’m home."

 

 

Fast Facts

Birthday: April 13, 2001

Favorite Dancer: Lucia Lacarra of Bavarian State Ballet

Favorite barre exercise: “I love fondu combinations, especially when there are a lot of balances.”

Favorite food: apples and cinnamon

Dream dance role: The lead in Giselle. “I even named my cat after her!”

Nondance hobby: “I like to listen to classical music.”

The best advice she’s ever received: “Never hold back, because you might not get a second chance.”

It seems like these days, if you wanted to spend all of your free time watching dance on TV, you probably could—not that we recommend it (everything in moderation, right?). But think about it: Just this spring/summer, we've welcomed Teen Vogue's "Strictly Ballet," Hulu's "The Next Step" and Ovation's "Young Marvels" to the dance TV family. Not to mention, we've blocked off our Wednesday evenings for a glorious two-hour feast of "So You Think You Can Dance."

(L to R) Madison, Lex, Sage and Andrea (photo via danceon.com)

Whelp, "SYT" executive producer Nigel Lythoe knows a thing or two about fans of dance TV—namely, they just can't get enough of it. That's why he's introducing two new web series this year, starting with "Dance School Diaries." This docu-series will follow four young ballet dancers—Andrea, Lex, Sage and Madison—as they prepare to compete in the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix. We're not quite sure what to expect. Will the promised drama be juicy or over-the-top? Will it be reality TV or "reality" TV? Normally, I'd say we'll just have to wait and see, but this time we don't have to wait—the series premieres today! There will be 14 episodes in total, airing on YouTube each Friday until mid-September.

Check out the trailer below, then make your way over to YouTube to watch the first episode. And let us know what you think in the comments!

Ballet West principal Beckanne Sisk as Kitri (photo by Luke Isley, courtesy Ballet West)

One of the great hallmarks of ballet is its reverence for the classics—which means generation after generation of ballerinas has performed the same iconic variations. A quick YouTube search for “Giselle Act I variation” or “Kitri Act III variation” will bring up clips of brilliant professional performances by stars like Alina Cojocaru and Natalia Osipova. And that’s in addition to the thousands of results showing dazzling performances by students at ballet competitions.

If you’re dancing Esmeralda’s variation, how can you make your interpretation stand out from that huge, intimidating crowd? The keys to a one-of-a-kind performance are more tangible than you’d think. We asked the experts to weigh in on how to make a famous variation your own.

Do Your Research

When a ballerina performs a variation during a full-length production, she uses it to show the audience what the character is feeling and thinking at that point in the ballet—and you should try to do the same, even if you’re dancing the variation out of context. “You have to do your research, not just about the character, but about the entire ballet and all of the characters,” says Monique Meunier, co-director of the Academy of Nevada Ballet Theatre and a Youth America Grand Prix judge. “When you walk onstage to do an Aurora third-act variation, you need to dance as if you’ve lived through the first and the second act; you need to know where she’s at.” Read the book, if there is one, and try to see the full production in person if you can.

A winning interpretation of any variation also shows deference to and knowledge of the original intent of the choreography, especially when it comes to style. Valentina Kozlova, founder of the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, is often frustrated to see dancers lift their legs to their ears while dancing variations from Giselle, for example. “In my time, that was not allowed,” she says, “because it’s a very classical romantic ballet”—and the romantic style emphasizes modest, well-placed legwork rather than high extensions. Similarly, you’d need to learn about August Bournonville’s style before dancing the variation from his Flower Festival in Genzano, or study George Balanchine’s technique before attempting the solo from his Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux.

Your costume can also reveal if you’ve done your research. Xiomara Reyes, head of The Washington School of Ballet and a former American Ballet Theatre principal, dislikes seeing dancers wearing glittery dresses to perform Giselle’s Act I variation, for example. “Giselle was a peasant,” she says. “What does it mean to be a peasant? It means you don’t have glitter on your dress.”

Edit Carefully

Before she was a principal with Ballet West, Beckanne Sisk made it to YAGP’s NYC finals several times. One of the ways she stood out was by slightly altering the choreography

of her variations to suit her strengths, at the direction of her coach. “My coach would

Thays Golz at YAGP (photo by VAM, courtesy YAGP)

modify the variation so that instead of doing, say, an attitude turn, I’d do a regular pirouette,” she recalls. “Especially with in-between steps, there’s some room for change. Not everyone has to do a sous-sus—you might do a soutenu instead.”

According to Kozlova, this is where having a qualified coach is most important. While she trains all her students to dance variations by the book when they’re learning them in class, once you prepare for the stage, there’s no need to be a mannequin. “You can change steps—just not fundamental steps,” she says. “A coach knowledgeable in the classics knows what can be changed and what cannot.” If you don’t have the opportunity to work with an experienced coach, Reyes suggests sticking to a version of the variation that’s performed by one of the major ballet companies. If you do make small changes to the arms or transitional steps to flatter your body, just make sure they remain true to the style of the variation. “Don’t add arms from Don Quixote to Diana and Actaeon,” she says.

It’s tempting to change choreography to fit in your own tricks—but avoid the impulse. “We’ve seen four pirouettes, we’ve seen high legs,” Reyes says. “What we want to see is quality and control.” Meunier says that if you have the ability, you can add an extra rotation to a turn, but make sure you’re not compromising your musicality to do so. “Give me a performance,” she says, “don’t just give me tricks.”

Use Video for Inspiration, Not Imitation

Today, clips of hundreds of dancers performing popular variations are just a click away. That’s a remarkable resource—but use it wisely. “You’ll see many good dancers, but the things that suit one particular dancer may not suit you,” Kozlova warns.

“Watch for technique,” Meunier says. “Look at the port de bras, the épaulement, how they use their plié, technical things.” Don’t try to imitate the specific nuances of an established ballerina’s artistry. “It takes years to become an artist, and as a student you’re just starting to develop your voice,” Meunier says. “If you go out there and try to be Julie Kent, it’s going to look fake.”

Focus on What Matters

So how can you tap into your own artistry? Think about the unique strengths you bring to the table, and how you can apply them to your variation’s particular challenges. Pay close attention to the tiny details—your épaulement, the in-between steps—rather than worrying about the tricks. Kozlova remembers one VKIBC dancer who had “nothing that people now are looking for in competitions, no enormous arches, no extensions or split jumps up to her ears,” she says. Instead, the dancer emphasized the precision of her technique. “The way she did everything correctly was so beautiful you just didn’t want to see anything else.”

It can feel like you need to dance everything at high volume to impress an audience, or a judging panel, in your two short minutes onstage. But sometimes subtlety makes a bigger impact. “Don’t give me fierce face when you’re dancing ballet,” Meunier says. “In ballet there’s always more of a simmer, even if it’s a bravura role.”

That’s a lesson that translates into professional life, too. As a principal, Sisk frequently performs full-length ballets that include variations she was known for in competition. “I was so used to punching the variations for competitions—I wanted to give it everything in those two and a half minutes,” she says. Once she had to sustain a full ballet, though, Sisk was forced to hold back a little—and that actually improved her performance. “You learn where to breathe,” she says. “You learn how to really find the character, so you can completely lose yourself in it.”

NYC is bursting with promising ballet dancers this week, thanks to the Youth America Grand Prix finals held at Lincoln Center's Koch Theater. To all the competitors (at YAGP and beyond), we're shouting a big "Merde!!" your way.

We can't wait to see what amazing things these kids will do next. Don't believe us? Just take a look at these teens competing in the '90s and early '00s. They sure turned out (more than) OK.

Before she was New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns, she was simply the amazingly talented 15-year-old Sara Mearns, competing at YAGP:

Recognize this guy? It's none other than the dreamiest of all American Ballet Theatre principals, Marcelo Gomes, competing at the Prix de Lausanne in 1996.

Here's international ballet superstar Alina Cojocaru at the Prix de Lausanne in 1997:

No surprises here: ABT soloist Sarah Lane's port de bras was just as glorious in 2002!

And San Francisco Ballet soloist Simone Messmer was just as regal at 16, competing at YAGP regional finals in 2001:

It's hard to imagine Diana Vishneva before she was a start of the Mariinsky Ballet and ABT. Nevertheless, here she is in 1994, competing at the Prix de Lausanne:

And finally, here's a special treat: Alex Wong in leopard booty shorts at the Prix de Lausanne in 2004. Go ahead, watch it sixteen times. We have.

In a pair of pointe shoes, she’s effortlessly regal—but take those pointe shoes off, and Jasmine Cruz will show you her spunky side. The 12-year-old’s solid technique and infectious personality helped her snag a gold medal at the World Ballet Competition in 2012, and earn first place in both classical and contemporary for the pre-competitive age division at 2013’s Youth America Grand Prix Semi-Finals. Last year, Jasmine also won New York City Dance Alliance’s National Mini Female Outstanding Dancer title.

"While I enjoy dancing variations, I love learning contemporary choreography. For me, the best part has always been getting to see the journey of a new dance."

(Photo by Allison Schultz/New York City Dance Alliance)

Fast Facts

Birthday: January 31, 2002

Hometown: San Francisco, CA

Studio: Westlake School for the Performing Arts

Favorite dancer of all time: American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland

Favorite food: frozen yogurt

Dance idol: San Francisco Ballet principal Maria Kochetkova. “She’s petite like me, and she’s broken a lot of boundaries in the dance world.”

Favorite dance movie: First Position

Dream dance role: Kitri in Don Quixote or Swanilda in Coppélia

Madeleine dancing a variation from
Coppélia, Act 1 (I. Siggul/Visual Arts Masters)

With perfectly arched feet and a petite frame, 14-year-old Madeleine Gardella looks like a jewelry box ballerina. She stands just 4 feet 11 inches tall, but exudes the confidence and maturity of a seasoned professional. Her port de bras is unmannered; her musical phrasing is both crisp and lilting. “Most people think ballet is exacting,” says Madeleine. “But there’s so much artistry. I’m enjoying that part of it.”

Her love of dance started in preschool, when a friend asked her to join a tap/jazz/ballet class. “It snowballed from there,” Madeleine says. She studied at The Dance Academy, a competition studio in Holland, PA, until she decided—at 12 years old—to focus on ballet. “Not that jazz and contemporary weren’t exciting,” she says. “It’s just that ballet was the most fun for me.”

Madeleine had previously tried The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia for a summer (“I loved ballet even more after that!”) and later stayed for the year-round program. By age 13 she was dancing full-time and getting her education online via the 21st Century Cyber Charter School. Unlike many of her friends who board at The Rock, Madeleine lives with her family outside the city. Her mom drives her to classes every day.

Though she spends most of her time in Philly, Madeleine has starred as Clara in NYC’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular. She also recently worked on the Broadway workshop of Little Dancer (alongside New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck!) with Susan Stroman after attending a casting call in NYC. She learned the entire show in 10 days—all the lines, music and choreography—and did a studio performance for investors.

As for the future, Madeleine is open to everything. She’s preparing for the Youth America Grand Prix finals in NYC (after winning first place in the Junior Age Division, Classical Dance Category in Philadelphia) and listening to Broadway tunes on Pandora internet radio. “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” she advises DS readers. “Push the boundaries a little and explore.”

FAST FACTS

Birthday: November 5, 1998

Favorite food: Indian

Who would play you in a movie? Audrey Hepburn

Dream dance roles: Kitri from Don Quixote or Swanilda from Coppélia

Favorite dancers of all time: Maria Kochetkova, Alina Cojocaru and Natalia Osipova

Strangest things in your dance bag: “I have these weird hair clips that look like little jellyfish. They don’t even hold my hair, but I like to keep them in there.”

Favorite dance movie: First Position

Dance BFF: Juliet Doherty (“We did Radio City together in NYC”)

Dance crush: Marcelo Gomes

Three words that describe you: “Petite, smart, comical”

Youth America Grand Prix has big news: They're currently working on an exciting new documentary, Ballet's Greatest Hits—and you can be part of it!

But first a little background. Earlier this year, YAGP held a "Ballet's Greatest Hits" gala that boasted performances from some of ballet's top dancers and was filmed by Emmy-winning Clemente D'Alessio.Now, they'll be using the footage, along with dancer interviews, to create a documentary-style flick.

Here's where you come in. They're asking you to vote for your Top Three favorite (current) dancers in the following roles:

  • Basilio and Kitri (Don Quixote)
  • The couples who perform the Flames of Paris pas de deux
  • Myrtha, Prince and Giselle (Giselle)
  • Gamzatti, Nikia, Solor, and Bronze Idol (La Bayadere)
  • Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince (The Nutcracker)
  • Odette/Odile and Siegfried (Swan Lake)

And they'll interview the winners for the flick!

There are a few ways you can vote:

1. Post your vote on YAGP's Facebook page

2. Tweet your vote to @YAGPtweets with #yagpbgh

I know this is all a bit confusing, but when it comes together it's going to be awesome! For the full scoop, click here.

It’s official: First Position is now playing in a theater near you, and it may just be your new favorite dance movie (look out, Center Stage). If you haven’t heard about this awesome documentary, here’s the gist:

The film follows insanely talented young ballet dancers for a year as they prepare for and compete in the Youth America Grand Prix, one of the most competitive and largest competitions out there. And each of the competitors has their own story and (often hilarious) personality.

Brother and sister, Jules (10) and Miko Fogarty (12) have a ballet teacher who often offers comic relief and a slightly overbearing stage mom. Jules may have the cuteness factor, but he just doesn’t love ballet. Big sis Miko, on the other hand, has the heart and the facility. Can’t wait to see where she goes next!

11-year-old Aran Bell lives in Italy and skateboards his way through his studio’s hallway. He's tough and talented. And is that a budding romance I see with fellow competitor Gaya Bommer Yemini? Read more about Aran in this “You Should Know.”

Rebecca Houseknecht (17) seems to have it all—a supportive family with the means to finance her dancing, long blond hair, the perfect ballet body (she’s so flexible!), and more pink and fluffy accessories than your average Barbie doll. But she’s also got a challenge that the others don’t—she’s graduating from high school and desperately wants to be hired by a professional company.

16-year-old Joan Sebastian Zamora lives in NYC and has talent beyond his years—he offers some of the most impressive (and manly!) dance scenes in the film. Probably the most moving are his conversations with his family back in Columbia. So much hope rides on his shoulders, and he handles it with grace.

Michaela DePrince's story is shocking and often tear-inducing. The first years of this 14-year-old's life were spent on  the war-torn streets of Sierra Leone. She was adopted and brought to America, and she’s worked her butt off to make it in ballet ever since. Her positive attitude is inspiring. Read more about Michaela in this “You Should Know.”

This is reality how it should be—no Dance Moms-like drama here. It’s all about sweet, hard-working, talented kids doing what they love. The dancing is incredible. Plus, we get never-before-seen behind the scenes access to YAGP. There are falls, injuries and some heartbreak along the way, but there’s also a whole lot of joy that will make you love dance even more than you already do.

Click here to find out where you can catch this film!

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