Flanders hosts Genée ballet contest for first time


Brazilian dancer Ricardo Amarante comes full circle as the guest choreographer of the prestigious Genée ballet competition, which will be held in Antwerp this year – a first

Photo by Elliott Franks

A venerable launch pad

1 January, 1998, is a date forever etched into the memory of Ricardo Amarante. Freshly flown into London and with butterflies in his stomach, the young Brazilian dancer embarked on an intense two-week regimen of practice and rehearsals with other young talents from around the world. Their goal: the Genée International Ballet Competition, which was, and still is, reputed to be one of the toughest and most prestigious of its kind.

“There I was, having never been outside Brazil before,” he remembers. “Of course, it was exhausting and daunting, but I was young and full of energy and hopes. There were excellent teachers and pianists. I was so impressed.”

Nearly 17 years later, Amarante is the venerable institution’s guest once again, this time as a choreographer – he has been asked to provide two solos for this year’s batch of young hopefuls, who will vie for one of the top medals. In his day, Amarante reached the semi-finals and reaped enormous benefits, he says, from the Genée.

Immediately after the competition, he was granted a scholarship to study at the English National Ballet School in London, then he moved to Paris to dance with the local opera ballet, and from there to Antwerp, where he has been, to this day, a soloist with Ballet Vlaanderen. It is in Antwerp that this year’s edition of the Genée will be held – for the first time in its 83-year-history.

Artistic flair

The Genée competition was founded in 1931 by Dame Adeline Genée, a Danish-British beauty who was once dubbed “the world’s greatest dancer”. It is run by the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), an examination board that oversees the teaching of classical ballet in 79 countries, to strict standards of excellence. 

The best ones will be those who achieve the most clarity and intensity

- Choreographer Ricardo Amarante

Only students who have completed the full curriculum with the highest honours are invited to participate in the competition. This year, 59 candidates from 10 countries will arrive in Antwerp.

Aged up to 19, they are essentially your typical teenagers, all bashful clumsiness and excited giggles. Some of the boys’ voices haven’t broken yet.

On stage, though, they become miracles of agility and grace, demonstrating flawless mastery as well as expressive powers well beyond their years.

Amarante’s solos are among the set pieces on this year’s programme. All contestants will study them under his guidance, although only semi-finalists will get to perform them for the public. There are two versions, one for girls, and one for boys, with both set to music by up-and-coming Japanese composer Sayo Kosugi.

The boys’ is titled “Beyond This”. “It is all about hope, about reaching for opportunities through dancing,” Amarante says. The girls’, “Between the Lines”, hints at the need for dancers to look beyond prescribed exercises and demonstrate true artistic flair.

Although Amarante has written down every step, he expects that no two performances will be alike. “Every dancer is different,” he tells me. “The best ones will be those who achieve the most clarity and intensity.” 

“Of course, technique is important,” says RAD artistic director and teacher Lynn Wallis. “It underpins everything. But what I try to bring out in them is their own interpretations. I try to encourage them to really respond to the music, to really let their bodies sing the music.”

A new leaf

Competition is a natural element in the Genée, spurring participants to give their very best, but winning, notes Amarante, isn’t ultimately that important. “It’s always good, but there’s more to the Genée,” he explains. “I didn’t win a medal, but the competition still kick-started my career. I learned so much during the contact with teachers and other dancers. I became a different – more mature – dancer.”

Staged exclusively in London until the turn of the century, the Genée started to travel around the world in 2002, stopping in Sydney, Athens, Singapore and Cape Town, among other cities. For Antwerp, the competition’s presence this year is a welcome recognition of the city’s standing as a world centre for dance and the performing arts.

For Amarante, 34, who is contemplating a conversion from dance to choreography, it is a chance to turn over an exciting new leaf.  “I have come full circle,” he says. “For the second time in my life, the Genée is offering me a new beginning.”

Amarante will give a talk and demonstration on 26 September at the Theater aan de Stroom. For other ballet-related events in Antwerp – which range from a book launch to a “ballet body conditioning” class for adults and musicals workshops for children – visit the website of the Royal Academy of Dance.

Genée competition semi-finals: 24-27 September at Theater ’t Eilandje and Antwerp Opera

More performances that deserve your attention

New World Summit
Jonas Staal
Performance might not be quite the right word for New World Summit at KVS in Brussels, but it’s definitely something you buy a ticket to witness. Created by Dutch artist Jonas Staal, it’s a marriage of politics and art that finds representatives – real ones – of “stateless states” taking to one of many podiums arranged in a circle to discuss the extent to which the concept of a state is still capable of representing and protecting people’s individual rights and freedoms. Dozens of speakers are scheduled over three days from unacknowledged yet operational states, such as Kurdistan, Somaliland and the Basque Country. Five themed segments, including Oppressive State and Global State keep the whole thing orderly. 19-21 September, KVS, Brussels

Plage Romantique (Romantic Beach)
Emanuel Gat Dance
Originally based in Tel Aviv, Emanuel Gat moved his dance company to Istres, France, in 2007. The Bessie Award-winning dancer and choreographer premiered this new piece just a few month ago at the Festival Montpellier Dance, and now it’s Antwerp’s turn to explore the questions it poses, such as: Can the space between sight and sound be choreographed? If a piece is performed time and again, can it still be called live? It’s a more playful take than it sounds on improv, muscle memory and social structures. Are we all just dancing the same old piece over and over? 26-28 September, deSingel, Antwerp

Liefhebben (Having Love)
Laura Van Dolron
Dutch dance/actor Laura Van Dolron is popular in Flanders, and weekend performances of her new piece, which she requested to premiere in Ghent, are sold out. But you can still grab tickets for mid-week, and you’d be wise to: It’s a one-woman show that explores the many facets of love – from a dad that drives 100 kilometres to bring you an aspirin to an imprisoned Nelson Mandela’s sharing of tomatoes he grew in his shoes. What is love, how do we show it, how do we know it when we see it? Amusing and poignant. 
23-27 September, Vooruit, Ghent

Brazilian dancer Ricardo Amarante comes full circle as the guest choreographer of the prestigious Genée ballet competition, which will be held in Antwerp this year – a first.

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Royal Ballet of Flanders

The Royal Ballet of Flanders is the only classical ballet company in Belgium. Based in Antwerp, it has long been considered one of the top dance companies in Europe.
Merge - The ballet company is set to merge with the Flemish Opera by 2014.
Budget cuts - The Australian-born artistic director Kathryn Bennetts is credited with reinvigorating the company after it languished in the early 2000s but left in 2012 due to budget constraints.
Award - The ballet company won the Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Company at the 2013 National Dance Awards in London.

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