Continuity and Variations: An Interview with Maria O’Connor

A familiar face to anyone involved in the Genée in recent years, candidate coordinator, Maria O’Connor, recently celebrated 25 years at the RAD.

Maria started out on a three-year teacher training course at the Academy back in 1983. After several years of freelance teaching, she worked as a chaperone and house mother for the RAD London Summer Schools before being offered a permanent role with what was then the Education and Training Department in 1991.

How many Genée competitions have you been involved in, and do you remember your first one?

My first Genée was in London in my first year. For me, it was special because we actually had a British female win the gold medal – something that was comparatively rare at that point. That and getting to work with David Wall and Julia Farron really stand out for me.

I’ve since been involved in 23 competitions (I had to count them!). The only one I missed was Sydney 2002, so I’m particularly looking forward to being a part of this one.

Is there a particular competition that stands out in your memory?

The most memorable one for me was Athens 2004. Apart from the particularly high calibre of the male competitors that year, with amazing dancers such as Xander Parish and Shevelle Dynott taking medals, it was the venue itself. The final took place at the Herodes Atticus Odeon, a 2,000-year-old amphitheatre. The candidates performed under the stars in this amazing space. There was a magical atmosphere; the performances appeared less restricted – even the jetés seemed to reach higher than usual. Perhaps it was the presence of Terpsichore herself? That night will always be special to me.

What, if anything, has changed about the competition over the years?

Candidates used to have to take a class on the stage as part of the Final. This was a lot of pressure and a very long evening for them – and even for the staunchest of ballet lovers. This now forms a part of the Semi-final instead. But artistically, it’s the choice of variations that has changed, first when Lynn Wallis introduced the 20th Century variations. The candidates were then able to move away from the classical repertoire to perform the works of other great choreographers like Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan. And they now have new freedom with the ‘Dancer’s Own’ section. It’s brought new scope for expression and performance that is so important. It has definitely changed the competition for the better.

Is there somewhere that you’d like to see the Genée staged that it hasn’t been yet?

There are lots of countries that would make great hosts for the Genée, but on a practical level, it would need to be somewhere with the facilities to stage it properly. Without a doubt, Japan would be great hosts. They are absolutely besotted with ballet and have such high standards.

What advice would you give to this year’s candidates about how to get through it all?

Luke Rittner, our Chief Executive, always likes to talk about the friendly nature of the Genée and he’s absolutely right. Candidates should enjoy every moment and make the most of every opportunity. After all, they’ll get so much attention and good advice – in some cases from teachers who have taught their teachers. But I also think that they shouldn’t perhaps focus too much on the Final and the medals. Some of the most beautiful dancers I’ve ever seen have taken part, not got through to the Final, but have still taken something from the competition and have gone on to have very successful careers.

This article originally appeared in the 2016 Genée International Ballet Competition programme.