Mississippi hops to its toes

Every four years, the state rolls out the red carpet for the ballet world.

At Thalia Mara Hall here in the heart of Mississippi's capital, Lynda Wright has hit a language snag. Ms. Wright, a local volunteer, is busy checking in dancers for a technical rehearsal. Competitors have come from around the world for this year's USA International Ballet Competition, and sometimes things get lost in translation.

Loudly and slowly, in her thick Dixie drawl, Wright introduces a couple representing Ukraine and Russia. "This is Viktor and Natalya. No English."

Viktor, leaning against a wall, nonchalantly informs Wright, "Oh, we speak English, we just can't understand you."

Laughing at the episode, Wright observes: "They speak English; they just don't speak Southern."

Not that Mississippi is a cultural backwater. In recent years, curators in Jackson have collaborated with counterparts in Russia, France, and Spain to put on stunning museum exhibits here. And the University of Mississippi in Oxford draws scholars from all over the world to its annual Faulkner conference.

Still, for people outside the dancing community, it might come as a surprise that this Deep South state, known more for its love of football and beauty pageants, is a mecca for future stars of the ballet.

Every four years, young dancers, some still students, some already professionals, descend here to vie for medals, cash, and scholarships in an "Olympics of ballet." Jackson plays rotating host, along with places like Moscow and Varna, Bulgaria, as hundreds of Mississippians, from teens to retirees, spread some of their famous Southern hospitality. Many wouldn't know a pirouette from a plié, but they help with everything from ushering to throwing parties to driving the dancers around and fetching them water in the sweltering summer heat.

"We're kind of their family when they're away from home," says Ellen Gully, who leads the crew staffing the International Village at Belhaven College, where the dancers are housed and fed. The phone rings and soon she is making arrangements at a pool in town where the dancers can go swimming.

"This is the fun place to be, because you get to know the dancers," says Steve Peterson, co-chairman of the International Village. As he fields questions from the competitors, Mr. Peterson asks for their autographs on the competition booklet containing their biographies and photos. "It helps me learn their names and faces."

Across the bustling lobby, in a long row that is continually renewed, baskets, plastic tubs, and Styrofoam ice chests overflow with gifts for the dancers from Jackson families who have signed up as hosts. The offerings include fruit, bottled water, and a favorite Mississippi hors d'oeuvre, cheese straws, as well as items requested by the dancers.

"It's so nice that people would care about someone they don't even know," says Russian contestant Natalia Vorontsova, who was shivering at night in the air-conditioning of her dorm room until her host family sent a blanket.

New York to Jackson

Among the world's ballet competitions today, all descendants of the first one, in Varna in 1964, Jackson's is known for its hometown flavor. The event sprang from a grass-roots effort to foster the art of dance in the state; in 1975 the Jackson Ballet Guild brought a well-known New York teacher, Thalia Mara, to Mississippi, where she founded the Magnolia State's first professional ballet company and school. To build an audience for dance, Mara wanted to host an international ballet competition, with the idea that the sports-loving public would be drawn to an Olympics-style event. Mara convinced political and business leaders in Jackson to fund the project, and persuaded her many contacts in the ballet world that the showcase should be held down South.

Since its 1979 première, the Jackson competition has given audiences early glimpses of future stars, including Jennifer Gelfand, who won a gold medal in 1986 and went on to dance leading roles at Boston Ballet until her retirement in 2003. Irina Dvorovenko (silver, 1990) and José Carreño (Grand Prix, 1990) are now stars at American Ballet Theatre. After winning a silver medal in 2002, Boston Ballet dancer Sarah Lamb made a leap up to the rank of first soloist at London's Royal Ballet, where 1994 Grand Prix winner Johan Kobborg is a principal.

This year 97 competitors, representing 23 countries, battled it out in the first round. About half of the competitors survived the first cut to dance in the second round, which begins Friday. Divided into junior and senior categories, competitors must prove their artistry, technical prowess, and musicality in both classical repertoire and contemporary pieces.

Muscles like the backs of turtles

Over the decades, the Jackson competition has left its loyal helpers with some vivid memories. Retired high school Spanish teacher Babs King remembers a certain dancer from Japan, a sort of calamity Jane in a tutu, who forgot her tambourine for the first rehearsal and then lost her wallet. (King found the wallet but not her tambourine.) Through all the travails, a bond grew between the two. When the dancer was eliminated in one of the rounds, King recalls, "She cried, and I cried with her."

Elzena Johnson says she struck up a friendship with a Lithuanian ballerina during a previous competition, and the two corresponded for a while. "Her dancing was beautiful," she recalls. "Oh, it just flowed."

This year's event is especially precious to Ms. Johnson, a widow who became a nonagenarian after the last competition. "Last time I was crying, thinking that I wouldn't get to do this anymore," she says. "I'm so grateful to be alive to do this again."

Her job this year is to ride the trolley-like bus that shuttles competitors from their dorms to class and rehearsals.

A Senior Olympics swimmer who walks two miles five days a week, Johnson is in awe of the dancers' dedication. "I was looking at their feet and legs today," she says after the morning's first run. "They have big calluses on them. And one boy had calf muscles so big they looked like [the backs of] turtles. You can see how hard they work."

Phillip Macon recalls a backyard party where the Russian dancers first saw lightning bugs. "[The competition] is something that brings people and cultures closer together," says Mr. Macon, a medical-business consultant. "You spend some time together, you eat together, and you find out that, lo and behold, we're all human beings and we just might learn some things from each other – like what a firefly is."

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