USA IBC: An inside track to one of the world’s most prestigious ballet contests

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Junior Men’s gold medalist Taiyu He of the Peoples Republic of China performs a solo dance from “Nutcracker, Grand Pas de Deux,” during the Awards Gala of the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss., Saturday, June 28, 2014. 

Ballet’s stuffy stereotype blows up onstage every four years in Jackson, a welcome victim of the explosive energy, pyrotechnic moves and emotional heat elite young dancers bring to the Thalia Mara Hall stage.

The USA International Ballet Competition (IBC), with its long-standing reputation of fairness and integrity, is a magnet for dancers vying for medals, scholarships, cash awards and job offers. For two weeks, it will turn Jackson’s downtown arts district into an International Village in a festival of classical and contemporary ballet. It’s held every four years in Jackson; the 2014 IBC generated an economic impact of $12.1 million for the state.

The 2018 event’s 102 competitors from 19 countries, plus seven noncompeting partners, start arriving Wednesday for the IBC, June 10-23.

Audiences can plunge into a deep-dive indulgence or test it out on a toe-dip lark.

“Approach it like Mississippians approach sports,” says Carol Puckett, IBC chairman. “We have a fine appreciation for athleticism, and this is the most athletic of the arts. I know that that was in Thalia Mara’s mind when she founded the IBC.”

Ballet dancer competing in IBC

Tamako Miyazaki, one of two 2014 Sr. Women’s Silver Medalists, dances Esmeralda, Grand Pas de Deux, in the Awards Gala.

IBC performances are scheduled daily (twice daily, in some cases, with a dark day June 15) and Round I matinee tickets can be snapped up for as little as $6-$8 (with fees, $11-$13) for a balcony or rear orchestra seat. Top of the ticket range is the Awards Gala dress circle at $77 ($82 with fees). Find tickets at usaibc.tix.com or 601-973-9249.

Dancers compete solo or as a couple (both may compete or one may be a noncompeting partner), over three rounds of competition — classical ballet in Round I, contemporary ballet in Round II and both classical and contemporary ballet in the final Round III. Each round trims the field by about a third. Eliminated competitors may stay and continue to take classes, attend performances and even have additional chances to be seen by company directors and scouts. Competitors are grouped into junior (ages 14-18) and senior (ages 19-28) categories.

IBC dancer performing

Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Ga-Yeon Jung, 2014 Senior Women’s Bronze Medalist

Long-time IBC-goers will notice several changes for 2018; novice attendees have new opportunities for a closer look.

The competition tightens from 16 days to 14, and opens on a Sunday night. “It’s getting harder and harder to get dance dignitaries and professionals to come and stay for two solid weeks or 16 days,” a requirement for the International Jury, Mona Nicholas, IBC executive director, says of the change. The schedule shaves off a traditional dark night and packs Round II competition into one matinee and two evening sessions over a weekend.

Between special events and the compressed schedule this year, the ballet buzz is more concentrated than ever downtown, but fuller use of the Arts Center of Mississippi and the Jackson Convention Complex keeps activity centrally located, forming a festive arts corridor.

“We want people to just walk up and feel that they are in the middle of something great,” Nicholas says. Four times during the IBC, a 5-7 p.m. Party on the Plaza will take advantage of the Arts Center plaza space, spiffed up for the occasion, where food trucks, vendors and music will liven the pre-show atmosphere.

dancers competing at IBC

Photo by Richard Finkelstein

Cara Marie Gary and Aaron Smyth of Australia, bronze medalist, perform Rendez-vous, which was choreographed for them by the Joffrey Ballet’s Nicolas Blanc and won the 2014 USA IBC choreography award.

Ballet lectures and films during the IBC, including the documentary on Misty Copeland’s career, “A Ballerina’s Tale,” are all at the Jackson Convention Complex, as are competitor classes. Find the full schedule of events at usaibc.com. A limited number of observation tickets are available for the daily competitor classes, June 11-18, for a true behind-the-scenes look at dancers’ offstage regimen.

The splashiest events are the Opening Ceremony June 10, with its parade of flags, torch lighting and performance by dancers of the Joffrey Ballet, and the Awards Gala June 22, with medalist performances of juror-selected favorites and accompaniment by the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. Non-finalists also perform at the Awards Gala, in a new piece celebrated choreographer Matthew Neenah creates on these dancers, in workshop, during the IBC.

In a new twist, award winners’ names will be announced the morning of June 22 but specifics will be announced from the stage during the Awards Ceremony that evening. “They’ll know that they’re getting a medal,” Nicholas says. “They just don’t know if it’s a bronze, silver or gold” until that night. Medalists will perform again at the Encore Gala June 23.

At performances, audience dress typically trends to more casual theater wear at matinees and early sessions, and gets dressier as the IBC progresses. Don’t be late (or wait until intermission for seating). Don’t use a cell phone in the theater (no talking, no texting, certainly no recording, photography or video). Turn off cell phones, since a lighted screen could distract and even endanger competitors who’ve trained years for this moment, plus it could interfere with the sound equipment; ushers will be monitoring. Pen lights are OK; restrict use to between individual performances. Want a selfie with a favorite? Wait for them outside the theater after the performance. Accessible entrances are located on the sides of Thalia Mara Hall, with a ramp on the West Street side.

If you have a ticket but can’t use it, email or call the box office with a heads up. The IBC can find a taker, such as a coach. “It’s better to have a body in your seat … because dancers like a full house,” Nicholas says.

The IBC has parking passes for sale, with one-week or two-week options, that offer a discounted rate for the Republic Parking garage (Pascagoula at West), directly across from Thalia Mara Hall. Jackson Convention Complex provides complimentary parking across Pascagoula Street from the complex, about a block from the theater.

IBC male dancer

Photo by by Richard Finkelstein

Andile Ndlovu, representing South Africa, was a finalist at the 2014 USA IBC.

Best way to pick out a dancer to root for? Volunteer to be an IBC ambassador (formerly known as a host family), or any other role in a long list of volunteer opportunities. Volunteer for a day, a night, or more, and pick your own shift; the experience puts you at the heart of the event. Ambassador families ensure the competitors, housed at Millsaps College, feel welcomed and supported, often with a welcome basket, a night out, help with errands. Friends and families can team up and share a dancer, and some like more than one. “You’re welcome to have as many dancers as you want,” Nicholas says. Friends of the IBC will be selling flowers downstairs at the theater as a fundraiser during the IBC; fans can pre-order or buy them on the spot for a favorite competitor.

Several downtown spots are poised to accommodate theatergoers. The Westin Jackson, official hotel of the IBC and right across West Street from Thalia Mara Hall, has Estelle Wine Bar & Bistro. Underground 119, open Thursdays through Saturdays, is extending its kitchen hours until 11 p.m. and its Thursday open hours until 1 a.m. and Friday-Saturday until 2 a.m., plus featuring drink specials themed for the ballet. Parlor Market, open Mondays-Saturdays, targets ballet traffic pre-show with a $40 prix fixe menu and extended kitchen hours until 10 p.m. for folks after the show during the IBC’s two weeks.