Who was it said that ballet had had its day, but hoped she was wrong? Who said, “classical ballet has always been an art of belief. It does not fare well in cynical times...” And... "most people today do not feel that they “know enough” to judge a dance.” Jennifer Homans in her magisterial 2010 Apollo’s Angels, that's who, and she is wrong, if tonight’s finalists award ceremony has anything to say.
We do live in cynical times, yet to be here in a packed West End theatre audience of buzzing balletomanes, family, friends and more who make up the ballet world is to be reassured and energised. The cohort of a dozen young finalists plus the winner of the Dancer’s Own Choreographic Award—all candidates who choreographed their Dancer’s Own variation (or by a teacher or peer to music of their choice) were selected at the semi-final held at the RAD headquarters—make me see Apollo and his muses anew, dreamily classical but coupled with a dramatic contemporary athletic drive. Seventeen-year-old British candidate Alfie-Lee Hall won this award with his precise, demanding, gymnastic with a smidgen of a hip-hop vibe, The One. He performs it for us tonight as a break between the contemporary and classical sections. It is amazing.
Seventy-nine candidates from fifteen countries across the world took part in The Fonteyn semi-finals, and today we see twelve finalists making it through to compete in The Fonteyn 2023 Final, four male, eight female. 17-year-old British Oliva Moulsdale, Australians Ben Moss (aged 18), Alicia Wong (aged 16), Samantha Wong (19), Ed Cooley (17), Brits Mandy Kwan (aged 18), Antonia Maria Cramb (17) and Jakob Wheway Hughes (16), 15-year-old New Zealander Lucia Moore, and another New Zealander 16–year-old Ava Eie, Indonesian Indira Mayrani aged 19 and Zai Calliste, Australian / British / Caribbean dancer aged 18.
The awards come not just with prestige and profile but in the form of cash, too. There is also the Bedell’s Bursary award, this year won by India Kennedy, a British young dancer training at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. “In addition to the medals and cash prizes—and for the first time—all candidates will have the opportunity to be considered for a variety of tuition scholarship opportunities from renowned dance schools across the globe.”
Does the man or woman in the street know quality when they see it? The Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award seems to suggest they do. Zai Calliste, whose “Dancers Own” number choreographed by Jane Pirani, as well as his attack in the classical section Swan Lake extract, also gained him a Bronze from the judges. The dancers all appear professional to me, truly the standard is very high. It’s an entertaining and edifying evening.
Jakob Wheway Hughes (a slender version of Michelangelo’s David) wins the Gold medal. Last year he won the RAD’s Bedell’s Bursary and the Barbara Geoghegan award in the Cecchetti Society Trust 2022–23. The Silver goes to Lucia Moore, and the Bronze is given to two male dancers, Ed Cooley and Zai Calliste, the recipient of the Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award.
The Fonteyn (previously known as The Genée) International Competition is one of the oldest ballet competitions in the world, for young dancers trained in the RAD syllabus. Beginning in 1931, the competition has toured the globe. The Genée and the Fonteyn are a veritable launchpad for many future careers in the arts, not just dance. Previous medallists include Royal Ballet principal dancers Steven McRae and Francesca Hayward. It is a joy to see it live this year after the COVID interruption. It can also be viewed on the RAD web site.
Before the decisions are announced—it feels a bit like school speech day (there are the inevitable speeches, many people to thank)—by a panel of three judges: Dame Darcey Bussell, RAD President, Aaron Watkin, Artistic Director of English National Ballet and Amanda Britton, Chief Executive, Principal and Artistic Director of Rambert School—we are treated to more dance, two pieces, one choreographed by Royal Ballet First Soloist Valentino Zucchetti (former Gold medallist in 2006 of the Genée) and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s AD Robert Battle.
Zucchetti channels Balanchine—I see Apollo references and pretty geometric lattice and jewellery framing—except it’s for about eighty dancers (all those who took part in the competition). How does he pull that off… but pull it off he does. It’s Olympian. It’s classical in every sense. And the dancers do him proud. What a joy. Dance is not withering on the vine. I get goosebumps.
Battle’s is a solo from 1999, Takademe, danced by Caspar Lench, Royal Ballet Aud Jebsen Young Dancer, one to look out for. To Sheila Chandra’s complex Indian taka taka taka dhim beat, in bare chest and red trousers, his body is a pliant thing of wonder, and the dance piece witty, expressive.
See what dance can do: imbue the soul and lift the spirit. It can do more than that: RAD shows us a film of all the classes they do—for Silver Swans (isn’t Angela Rippon one…), for the community, toddlers and for the other abled. It’s inspiring. Everybody can dance, they say. Everyone can aspire to dance at whatever level. Tonight we see the levels hard work, commitment, and love can achieve. Next year, RAD will introduce musicality into the standard mix. I always thought that was crucial. The musical choices tonight are splendid, played splendidly on piano by Richard Norriss and Jonathan Still.