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An extract from the latest issue
CURTAIN UP! by Rosemary Waugh
The Fonteyn, the RAD’s flagship ballet competition, returns to the live stage this year. But how does it feel to be part of this cherished event? Rosemary Waugh hears from dancers, teachers and crucial figures behind the scenes.
Typhoon warnings, iPad overheatings and a small earthquake: battling the elements is not something most ballet competitions have to factor into their planning. But the Royal Academy of Dance’s The Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition (formerly the Genée) can lay claim to being both one of the world’s most prestigious dance competitions and to a surprising history of weather-related anecdotes. That’s because, since 2002, the event has been hosted by flagship venues across the world.
Those typhoon warnings, for example, were issued as a precaution prior to the 2018 Hong Kong event, while the score-playing iPad overheated at a pop-up event in Sydney, Australia in 2016. Most dramatically, the small earthquake occurred while participants readied themselves one morning in Wellington, New Zealand in 2012.
This year, the competition comes home to London for the first time since 2015. It’s a celebratory moment, marking a welcome return to in-person events following an online version of the competition during the Covid pandemic in 2021. It will also give competitors the chance to experience the RAD’s bespoke new headquarters in Battersea where they will train and perform in the semi-finals. And this year, all candidates will learn a new work by guest choreographer, Valentino Zucchetti of the Royal Ballet. This will be performed at the final at His Majesty’s Theatre (famously, the home of The Phantom of the Opera). Previously, male and female dancers were taught different pieces of choreography, whereas this year audiences will see an ensemble performance by all participants, regardless of whether they have individually made it through to the final.
Previous medal winners include Alexander Campbell, Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward, Céline Gittens and Steven MacRae (more on whom later). Following their Fonteyn forays, participants have gone on to dance with companies such as the Royal Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, English National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. For 2023, over 80 candidates will battle it out, from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, New Zealand, Mexico, Japan, Cyprus, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
Unsurprisingly, a competition of this size and scope requires organisation on something approaching a military scale. The RAD’s Head of Events and Special Projects, Sarah-Jane Lewis – who also experienced that brief morning shake-up in Wellington – has worked behind the scenes on ten successive competitions. She finds the Dancer’s Own variation, choreographed by the dancer themselves, especially exciting, because it gives students the chance to display their own individuality and taste. ‘They get to choose their own music, costume and choreography and sometimes you’ll see the influence from the country they come from, like Mexico, for example. It’s amazing just to see the creativity.’
Typically, Lewis and her colleagues start planning each international event several years in advance while also working simultaneously on the current year’s event. There are often multiple venues to source for the coaching, semi-finals and final, and there is a complex timetable of classes and coaching sessions. During the online year, this included Zoom call classes with 118 participants calling in from different locations across the world.
As well as navigating the complexities of organising a global event on this scale, Lewis also describes how the RAD is committed to supporting candidates to participate through a bursary scheme, made possible by generous donations and philanthropic support.
One of the other masterminds behind all this is candidate coordinator Maria O’Connor. An all-encompassing figure, O’Connor is the go-to person for students, teachers and parents. Her role allows her to really get to know the dancers and their abilities. She recalls being instantly bowled over by dancers like Xander Parish who won silver in 2004 in Athens at a much-loved final held under the stars in an open-air amphitheatre. ‘But what’s equally important to me,’ she says, ‘are all the candidates who don’t make it through to the final and how brilliant they are.’
Along with the medallists, O’Connor also remembers people like Ashley Shaw who entered three times and never made it through to the final, but has nonetheless has gone onto a brilliant career dancing with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. ‘You’re not always going to agree with the judges!’ laughs O’Connor. ‘But as we all know, getting to the final isn’t always important.’
Even amongst those who have won medals, there’s a strong feeling that entering The Fonteyn offers more than the chance to grab some silverware. Julian Wen-Sheng Gan, who won silver and the Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award in Toronto in 2019, recalls the simple ‘joy’ of taking part. ‘It was unforgettable and made me feel like all the hard work and sacrifices were worth it.’
Gan, who was the first Malaysian dancer to win a medal, also emphasises the welcoming and friendly atmosphere present throughout the competition – something many people are keen to mention – and the enduring friendships he made while in Canada. His advice to 2023 entrants is: ‘just enjoy the process and getting acquainted with new people. For me, that’s more valuable than what you’ll get if you just focus entirely on the prize.’
Meet the Editor
David Jays is the Editor of Dance Gazette. He also writes about dance and theatre for the Guardian and Sunday Times and is dance critic for the Evening Standard. You can find him on Twitter @mrdavidjays – and to get in touch about any aspect of Dance Gazette, or if you have an idea for the magazine, contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org.