An American winner in Moscow's tough ballet competition

At precisely 2 minutes to 3 o'clock on a hot, sultry midsummer night, 23 of the 34 jury members of the International Ballet Competition entered the opulent Beethoven Zal, tapestried in red silk, in the Bolshoi Theater.

he small group of dancers, critics, teachers, pianists, and photographers had been waiting in the theater since midnight to learn the results of the competition. It was the end of two weeks of sitting twice a day in the hot, overcrowded theater, watching 123 competitors in the first round gradually shrink to 32 in the third and final round. Now the tired but eager dancers were to learn who had won the coveted prizes and medals.

An elegant, charming American woman sat with hands clasped listening to the announcer, who spoke in Russian, followed by English and French interpreters. Mary Day, director of the Washington School of Ballet in Washington, D.C., had told her pupil Amanda McKerrow to stay at the hotel and sleep.

With the announcement of the first-prize gold in the junior group came Amanda's name -- and Miss Day off to the public phone in the hall to wake up Amanda and tell her the good news. Amanda had tied for first place with Soviet dancers Natalia Arkhipova and Andris Liepa, son of the renowned dancer Maris Liepa.

Amanda, 17, who is just graduating from high school, made a hit with the audience from her first performance. Her light, lyrical, flowing style was praised by the Soviet press, and her interpretation of dances from "Les Sylphides" brought Olga Lepeshinskaya, the famous former dancer, to her dressing room with congratulations on her pure classical lines.

Amanda's partner, Simon Dow (who was not a competitor here), was rightly honored with a prize for best partnering. He was an added attraction for her dancing, never attempting to steal the limelight but instead complementing her performance with his steady support.

When they appeared for rehearsals for the closing concert and the big gala, Amanda was surprised by all the attention, hugs, and kisses she got from everyone she met. "I never expected to win a gold medal," she said. "I just came here to do as well as I could."

What made her so popular with the audience and the jury?

Konstantin Sergeyev, in a speech after the announcement of winners, stressed the need for artistry -- and for more "fifth positions."

"Do you realize how many of you didn't land in a good closed fifth position?" he asked.

At all times Amanda expressed herself through her dancing and not, as did some, in personality -- and she remembered her fifth position!

Robert Joffrey, the American jury member and founder of New York's Joffrey Ballet, said the competition had given Amanda a chance to test herself under the most difficult conditions, and this was the important thing. "It's a challenge to any dancer," he said, "to dance at the Bolshoi -- a theater with a tradition of over 200 years -- and it's as though you are competing against everybody who has ever danced on that stage."

The competition, held in Moscow every four years since 1969, is considered to be the most glamorous in the ballet world. Not only does it have a splendid setting in the pale, yellow-columned building near Red Square and the Kremlin, but it's the only competition offering a live orchestra in the third and final round, instead of the varied tempos and styles of taped music or piano accompaniment used n Rounds 1 and 2.

But now the competition dancing was over and the weary young people listened attentively to the results. The Canadian team deservedly walked away with five of the medals. Yurio Shimomure, a tiny 15-year-old from Japan, won second place in the junior group.

And the audience favorite, Venezuelan Yanis Pikieris, who thrilled everyone wih his dancing leaps and also proved himself a truly stirring performer in a scene from John Cranko's "Romeo and Juliette," won a gold medal in the senior male section.

But it was the Russians who walked off with most of the prizes, as expected. Their training from an early age -- and superb opportunities to study and perfect technique -- cannot be compared with that of most of the Western dancers , who have to pay their own way for teaching.

The top award of all, "Prize of the Bolshoi Theater of the USSR -- Grand Prix" (including a gold medal, title of laureate, and 2,500 rubles -- about $3, 360) went to a 21-year-old Tatar from Kazan, Irek Mukhamedov. Mukhamedov, a graduate of the Moscow Choreographical Academy and now a dancer with the Moscow Classical Ballet Company, demonstrated in all three rounds a firm and precise technique, with outstanding control on turns and high, soaring leaps.

The announcements continued in the three languages, and finally all medals, superprizes, and diplomas were known, even including awards for the best piano accompanists.

It was now 3:50 a.m. and daylight outside in the newly washed streets of Moscow. The prizewinners set off happily for home -- to get what rest they could before returning yet again to the red and gold auditorium for dress rehearsals for t he prize-giving and the final concert.

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