Ballet earns a southern welcome

The USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., has become one of the high points on the dance calendar

NOT all the fancy footwork to be found in the United States this summer is on the green pitches of the World Cup soccer championships. Pink satin slippers and soft kid pumps, rather than tough cleated shoes, have been leaping and spinning, pointing and flexing, their owners also dreaming of winning.

From June 18 to July 2, 144 dancers from 41 countries converged on Jackson, Miss., to participate in the fifth USA International Ballet Competition, and hopefully to receive one of the dance world's most prestigious medals.

On stage at the Jackson Municipal Theater, Denmark's Johan Kobborg has been showing the fleet finesse of Bournonville's balletic style, in stark contrast to the muscular prowess of Cuba's Alexander Pereda.

An engaging young Czech couple, Michal Matys and Adela Pollertova, have demonstrated split-second timing in their contemporary dances. Boston Ballet's Alexandra Koltun has balanced and stretched, while Germany's Beate Vollack's steely legwork evidenced more attack than could be found on any playing field.

This two-week event in the sultry Deep South is one of the high points in the dance calendar. The International Ballet Competition (IBC) began in 1964. Now five cities host the contest on a rotating basis: Moscow; Varna, Bulgaria; Helsinki; Paris; and Jackson, Miss. The visionary force behind the American event is a former dancer, Thalia Mara, whose own career took her world-wide until she was invited to develop a ballet company and school in Mississippi. Mara found much native talent but little local interest, so she staged an international ballet festival in 1975, which led to US participation in the IBC circuit.

In 1982, Congress passed a joint resolution declaring Jackson the official home of the US IBC. The ensuing competitions have not only firmly placed the city on the international culture map but also created such a warm atmosphere of goodwill that the once-every-four-years event has become something of a reunion for dance lovers from around the world.

As a veteran of five Moscow IBCs, I had not yet been to Jackson, and I was intrigued to compare the two. Moscow wins hands down for its location - the historic Bolshoi Theater - and for its rare glimpses into the workings of the Russian ballet system. But the results were always predictable - the Soviets and satellite countries took home the majority of medals since their judges far outnumbered those from other countries.

At last year's event, the atmosphere in Moscow itself was not conducive to international goodwill: The country was waiting for the assault on the Russian White House, so all the participants scurried home quickly after performances. And there was also a dearth of foreign competitors and of artistry.

Happily, Jackson has proved the opposite.

The talent on show here has been prodigious - especially in the junior division - and the smorgasbord of nationalities, including for the first time South Africa, has been impressive. On the international jury, led by Boston Ballet's artistic director, Bruce Marks, there was one member, one vote.

So how does Jackson, a city of 350,000, cope with the influx of so many visitors, many of whom speak no English? And how does the festival handle the mechanics of so many artistic demands?

The answer lies in civic pride, to which is added traditional Southern hospitality and a veritable army of 2,000 patient, friendly volunteers, many of whom give up their summer vacations to work full time at the competitions. The results are heartwarming. The organization is on a par with stage-managing the World Series or a Wimbledon season. Unpaid committees see to the smooth running of everything from flag-flying and city-street periwinkle-planting to hospitality and transportation.

A host family is assigned to each visitor to care for his or her needs from arrival to departure. Pint-sized Girl Scouts act as errand-runners for the dancers, teenagers serve refreshments at the theater, professionals such as teachers tend the phones and answer questions. Amazingly, translators for all but two of the languages have been found locally in the Jackson area.

``The volunteers are a crucial element to the USA IBC,'' says Sue Lobrano, the event's executive director. ``If we had to pay people to do everything that these dedicated and talented individuals do, we could never afford to produce the competition.'' Without such help and generous local backing, perhaps the dancers' costumes would have been adorned with logos and the stage backdrops emblazoned with commercial signs as on a sports field.

Ability to gracefully pirouette and balance or make breathtaking leaps and dives, to show musicality and drama, whittled down the 144 original competitors to 34 in the final round - showing that high-class ballet is truly international and no longer the domain of the Russians.

The results confirmed this.

There were 12 nationalities in the winners' list, including among the Americans Boston's Koltun, who received a bronze medal. The charming Czechs took ``Best Junior'' prize as well as a silver medal each, and, after two pieces that showed off impressive technicality, Vollack was given a silver.

Two sets of siblings, Simon and April Ball from Pennsylvania, and Yury and Zenaida Yanowsky from Spain, took individual medals, but the top prize of all - the Grand Prix, awarded by unanimous decision of the jury - went to the young blond Dane Johan Kobborg, whose technical grace and artistry made him a true champion.

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