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American competitor Harold Mendez took home a junior men’s bronze medal in the 2018 USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss. Photo by Richard Finkelstein

The Dancing Continues—USA International Ballet Competition Takes on Jackson in 2023

A year’s postponement of the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., puts dreams on hold, but also puts the event in the best position to attract world-class dancers at the top of their game along with an audience of ballet fans hungry to see it, organizers say.

The COVID-19 pandemic-related move pushes the USA IBC to June 10-24, 2023, rather than the previously announced 2022 date in its usual four-year cycle.

The downside is another year’s wait for the festival of dance that brings elite competitors, an avid audience and the world’s eye to Jackson. It also means an additional year of operating expenses for the nonprofit before ticket revenues return.

USA IBC International Jury Chairman John Meehan extinguishes the flame of the 2018 USA International Ballet Competition at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson. Photo by Richard Finkelstein

But, the bright side dodges what could have been a summer’s glut of international ballet competitions worldwide in 2022—with three of the world’s oldest contests angling for top-notch competitors, prestigious jurors and, to some extent, audience members.

In 2018, its most recent year, the USA IBC drew 40,400 attendees in two weeks and generated a $12.5 million economic impact for Mississippi. Jackson is the official home of the USA IBC, designated by a joint resolution of Congress in 1982. 

From Ballet Competitions to Fulfilling Dance Careers

The ballet world is a small one—even as it spans the globe—and competitions are hot spots for young dancers to grab the eye of the art form’s most prestigious players as they vie for cash prizes, scholarships and job offers that can launch careers.

“They’re being seen … and very often that leads to a job or invitation to join a school or company,” says John Meehan, chairman of the USA International Jury. “That’s a very important function that competitions serve, especially for dancers who come from out-of-the-way places.” 

Such opportunities are vital for artists for such a physically demanding, often short-lived career in the spotlight. “The crucial years for training are ages 16 to 20, or 15 to 19—something like that. There’s not much time to put your best foot forward and hope to dance professionally for 10 or 20 years,” Meehan says.

The USA IBC’s move to 2023 brings greater confidence that global travel will be back on track, dancers back to peak condition and COVID-19 further back in the rear view mirror. The extra year of fundraising—put on pause by the pandemic—is key for the USA IBC, says USA IBC Executive Director Mona Nicholas.

The world’s four oldest international ballet competitions — Varna IBC (established 1964), Moscow IBC (1969), Jackson’s USA IBC (1979) and Helsinki IBC (1984)—share similar formats and are notable for their reputation, prestige and longevity. They occur every four years on a rotating basis, with the exception of the every-two-years Varna IBC. The pandemic’s impact rippled through a rotation schedule that’d been in place for decades.

International Ballet Competition Alliances

Alliances with other international competitions are part of a “Sustain the USA IBC” goal: to remain relevant and competitive. As part of that mission, USA IBC joined the International Federation of Ballet Competitions, a membership of about 20 competitions, back in 2017.

“Even though you can’t compare ‘apples to apples’ in all cases, there is so much to learn from each other, ways to help each other, ways to promote and enhance ballet as an art form,” Carol Puckett, USA IBC board chairman, says.

USA IBC Executive Director Mona Nicholas (left) and Board Chairman Carol Puckett attended an International Federation of Ballet Competitions in Yaroslavl, Russia, in 2019. Photo courtesy USA IBC

Renewing relationships with sister competitions in “the big four”—as the world’s oldest IBCs are often grouped together—is pivotal, and rebranding along that line would signal their standout status. “We present dancers of the highest quality,” Meehan says. “We remind each other, remind competitors and the dance world that the big four competitions are where you see really remarkable artists, especially senior artists (ages 19-28). For seniors, these are really critical competitions.”

USA IBC leaders sought a co-marketing plan with the big sister competitions to maximize exposure through social media and more. “It’d just be a way to open up lines of communication between and learn from each other,” Nicholas says. “It’s a way to tell our story and to tell our history. It’s just a different angle.” 

Then COVID-19 canceled a meeting along that line planned for Helsinki last June. Also canceled: Helsinki’s 2020 IBC, a trip there with about 20 USA IBC patrons, and Varna’s IBC 2020 last July. 

A Zoom video conference last June stood in for the meeting, and that’s where the dates issue surfaced. Helsinki was rescheduling for late May-early June 2022—an immovable date because of sponsor money obligations, their theater’s schedule and the impending renovation. “Varna was not budging either,” Nicholas says. “Nobody was budging.

“It just dawned on us all at the same time.” She ducked out of the call to quickly confer with Jackson IBC officials. “Let’s go in 2023.” Thumbs went up all around on this end.

USA IBC volunteered to move its date, pending board approval. Its artistic committee weighed pros and cons, and officials touched base with sponsors, checked on availability of Thalia Mara Hall, Belhaven University (site of its USA IBC Dance School), Millsaps College (where competitors are housed), the Jackson Convention Complex and more.

“It was a positive maneuver,” Nicholas says. Strategic, too, “because of the uncertainty of travel—is the travel industry going to be back so all these people can have reasonable airline tickets. Are our ticket-buyers going to feel comfortable sitting in a theater with everyone? Are the dancers going to be back in shape, to compete at the level that they are expected, to even be accepted into our competition? And, the biggest one of all: I have not been out fundraising, because so many people are hurting, and losing their jobs. I have not thought, and my board has not thought, it’s a good time to fund-raise. This will give me an additional year.”

American competitor Tia Wenkman and her noncompeting partner Michal Wozniak perform a variation in the 2018 USA IBC. Wenkman won a junior women’s bronze in the competition. Photo by Richard Finkelstein

With board approval, they relayed the plan to the three sister competitions, who all embraced it, too. “We opened up lines of communication that had not been there for years,” Nicholas says. “We’re working together, instead of against each other and giving dancers the opportunity to be seen on each of the stages, instead of making a choice where to go. It’s an opportunity to be seen on some of the most famous stages for dance competitions.”

IBC Organizers Remain Hopeful and Plan Ahead

As for the co-marketing idea, it floated around on the first Zoom call, but the concept didn’t immediately connect with the sister IBCs, probably because of their national funding, Nicholas says. The USA IBC is primarily funded by corporate and individual sponsorships, International Ballet Association (which includes Friends of the USA IBC) memberships, ticket sales and grants, with some state and city support. Still, USA IBC organizers remain hopeful and made sure to include brief histories and global context of the fellow older competitions in their news releases.

For USA IBC, the pandemic also meant cancelling a performance by the Washington Ballet, which was set for Oct. 15. “The year 2020 has just been a year of unraveling and undoing a lot of work that we have put into it for a very exciting year,” Nicholas says. “Our goal is not just to have the IBC. We want to support dance and performing arts in our off years.” 

Toward that end, 2021 plans include an evening of dance during the multi-week FestivalSouth in Hattiesburg with former USA IBC medalists and string musicians, in partnership with Jay Dean, FestivalSouth founding artistic director.

Hopes are, too, that when dance companies return to touring, USA IBC will again organize trips to performances at the Bologna Performing Arts Center in Cleveland, the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Oxford and more.

Amid the pandemic, USA IBC managed to continue its CityDance program of free ballet classes for Jackson Public School students, with precautions and guidelines for health and safety. Rather than holding an audition, CityDance welcomed back last year’s students and, with 40 young dancers (about half its usual number), limited class size to fewer than 10. Classes are socially distanced, masks are required, and the room is disinfected before and after the classes.

IBC CityDance
The USA IBC CityDance program continues, with adjustments, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy USA IBC

“We felt it was very important for them to get moving, to keep moving!” Nicholas says.

Friends of the USA IBC had to cancel its annual Kentucky Derby Party fundraiser. Instead, they’ll have a virtual membership party, going live on Nov. 19. “At Home with the IBC” will feature jury chairman Meehan, Nicholas, Friends president Emily Simmons Sandoval, former medalists and volunteers. 

Just as adjustments on the ground in Jackson solidify USA IBC’s regional base, renewed and strengthened contacts abroad help secure its international footing, heading into the future. 

A seat at the international table allows the USA IBC to grow, expand its reach and stay relevant, Puckett says, with benefits that range from attracting the best dancers and best judges to sharing best practices and cementing friendships. Those contacts have already reaped rewards. 

At an IFBC meeting last year in Yaroslavl, Russia, Puckett and Nicholas met the artistic director of ballet in Astrakhan, Russia. Puckett made the connection that Jackson-born conductor William Garfield Walker (now of Vienna) would perform in Astrakhan two weeks hence; the director and his wife befriended and hosted the young conductor. And, the director will send dancers to the next USA IBC.

USA IBC goals for 2023 include hosting the IFBC in Jackson. The move would boost event excitement and prestige, and the idea has already met an enthusiastic response from IFBC’s Russian director and directors of the Moscow IBC, Puckett says. With accommodations and more for about 30 delegates, it would be fairly costly, though, and USA IBC would seek state assistance to do it.

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