Mission Possible: RAD Bursaries

The RAD’s bursaries scheme helps young dancers compete in the competition, whatever their circumstances. Four successful applicants share their stories with Nima Naik.

Ryan Felix at Genée 2017. Photo by Bruno Simao.

In 2016, California-native Alexandria Finley was a fulltime student at UC Berkeley. She took a break from her studies to travel to Sydney to compete in the RAD’s Genée International Ballet Competition because ‘the opportunity to perform on a global scale was one that I could not fail to pursue.’ However, even with a part-time job on campus to offset the cost of participating, with her tuition fees, living expenses and paying to travel home to continue her ballet studies, it seemed an impossibility.

Luckily, the previous year the RAD had launched the Genée bursary scheme. ‘The bursary was really my only chance of going to Sydney at all,’ Alexandria says. ‘It was as much a motivational aide as it was a financial one; without knowing that someone, somewhere, in the RAD community believed in me and wanted to see me participate, I don’t know that I would have had the strength to push through such an incredibly challenging year.’

Since its inception in 1931, the Genée has attracted the finest young dancers trained internationally in the RAD syllabus and, since 2002, has been hosted around the world making it a truly global occasion. The bursary scheme plays an important part in helping dancers compete in the RAD’s flagship event.

With funds raised at the QEII Coronation Award gala dinner in 2014, the Fiona Campbell Legacy and other sources, the RAD gives a varying number of candidates each year the Dame Darcey Bussell Genée Bursary and, with the support of the Dame Margot Fonteyn Scholarship Fund, one candidate receives the Dame Margot Fonteyn Scholarship Fund Bursary. The bursaries are only set to run for five years, meaning that the last will be distributed ahead of Genée 2019. Bursaries are granted prior to general applications opening in order to incentivise candidates who may be deterred from applying for financial reasons. Awarded by an independent panel, they are distributed based on the financial need of the candidate as well as the strength of their application, not artistic merit.

In the three years since the scheme was initiated, 116 candidates have applied to the RAD for financial aid with 28 candidates receiving £49,000 worth of funds to make their competition dreams a reality. Alexandria Finley was one of four former bursary recipients who told me about their Genée experience and what has happened since.

Canadian candidate Jia Yi (Judy) Luo saw the Genée as the perfect opportunity to experience her first ballet competition and was excited to head to London in 2015 to meet talented RAD-trained dancers from across the world. After applying for the bursary scheme, which she heard about from her teacher, Cynthia Fisher, Judy used the funds to cover all her travel expenses from Toronto, accommodation in London and her entry fee. With the bursary, Judy was able to ‘focus my attention on my preparation in my readiness for the competition. I no longer had to worry about the expenses of the trip itself.’

Befriending fellow competitors was a highlight. ‘It’s really easy to get caught up in your own studio and the community you train with,’ Judy says. ‘We forget about the huge community of dancers all over the world and this competition was the first time I was able to begin to grasp the idea of endless possibilities in dance.’ After coming home from London, Judy successfully earned her Solo Seal Award and is now in her second year at Ryerson University majoring in dance. With the Genée heading to her hometown in 2019, Judy tips off future candidates: ‘Toronto is a city filled with diversity and surprises. I’d say, be ready for anything!’

Jeremie Wen-Jian Gan from Malaysia set his sights on the 2016 Genée when the competition returned to Australia. As an RAD student from Pre-Primary to Solo Seal, competing in the Genée was an aspiration for Jeremie and he applied for the bursary scheme after hearing about it from his mum and ballet teacher, Serena Tan Suet Leng. As the sole recipient of the Dame Margot Fonteyn Scholarship Fund Bursary in 2016, Jeremie admits that it boosted his morale and gave him a sense of ‘encouragement and support that was not found at that time amongst my immediate circle.’

While he was ready to compete in Sydney, Jeremie also took the opportunity to reunite with old friends and make new ones as he explains: ‘everyone had a common goal but at the same time the camaraderie was just infectious.’ Following the competition, Jeremie joined Singapore Dance Theatre as an apprentice and was promoted to artist earlier this year. His time at SDT has allowed his Genée journey to come full circle. He’s rehearsing a new work with Genée 2016 Commissioned Choreographer Tim Harbour at SDT and ‘it felt slightly nostalgic to be working with him again.’

Alexandria Finley’s Genée experience was ‘in a word? Unbelievable.’ Immediately after the competition, her workload didn’t lessen – she wrote a paper on the flight home from Australia and took three exams, two of which were delayed so she could compete, within 48 hours of returning to the US. This summer, she will graduate a year early with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science and then work full-time at Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defence company. Despite the rigours of academia, Alexandria danced with Berkeley Ballet Theater and Ballet Company at Berkeley and hopes to continue training in City Ballet of San Diego’s open programme as it’s her goal to ‘take a break from my engineering career and pursue dancing.’

Last year, British dancer Ryan Felix headed to Lisbon to compete in the Genée after learning about the bursary scheme from his RAD Registered Teacher Sarah Dickinson. In addition to wanting to challenge himself and gain some experience performing onstage, Ryan saw the Genée as the ‘pinnacle’ of his RAD training. When asked how the bursary helped him enter the competition, he puts it simply – the aid ‘made it possible’ and his entire Genée journey was ‘riding on it’.

Coming from a single-parent home, it would have been very difficult for Ryan to cover his application fee in addition to travelling and staying in Portugal. But with the bursary, he not only was able to compete, but could also fly his mum out to see him perform, and could share his bronze medal-winning experience with her. While Ryan enjoyed the ‘amiable atmosphere’ of the competition, the Genée gave also him the chance to choreograph on himself, with the majority of his Dancer’s Own solo being created in just four days. Ryan will begin his graduate year at Elmhurst Ballet School in September and, in the meantime, is making connections in hope of gaining a professional contract with a ballet company. For all these young dancers, the Genée bursary has made their journey in dance possible.

This article originally appeared in Dance Gazette