USA IBC: History’s made on the stage, but it’s in the seats and aisles, too

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A competitor with a broken arm, a gold medal win and now a juror’s seat. A hometown hero who marks a half-century on the Thalia Mara Hall stage this year. A blast from Mississippi public radio’s past.

The USA International Ballet Competition (IBC) is a launchpad for tomorrow’s dance stars, but history has a seat there, too. In the small world of international ballet, the IBC in Jackson is revered for its integrity, steeped in tradition and, every four years, peppered with dozens of familiar faces.

It’s Old Home Week at times, with jurors, competitor coaches, ballet company directors, a handful of returning competitors and even fans, including some from out of state, who haven’t missed a competition since the 1980s.

The IBC starts Sunday for two festive weeks of classical and contemporary ballet that not only spotlight the onstage competition among elite young dancers, but also turn Jackson into a global dance capital. The event’s 14 sessions of competitive performances, Opening Ceremony, Awards Gala and Encore Gala will be held at Thalia Mara Hall, with films, lectures and competitor classes (observation tickets available) at the Jackson Convention Complex. For IBC tickets, visit usaibc.tix.com.

Here’s a roundup of some familiar faces, and at least one voice, IBC fans will see and hear at Thalia Mara Hall, and their roles this time around.

Kathy ThibodeauxTorch bearer in the parade of nations in the Gertrude C. Ford Opening Ceremony Sunday.

“I’m honored … that’s a wonderful privilege,” she says. Her preparation? “Wear comfortable shoes.”

Thibodeaux, of Jackson, was the senior women’s silver medal winner at the 1982 IBC. “It was just a wonderful memory for me — the whole thing was very special, being able to represent the city and this great state.” That’s also when and where she and choreographer Greg Smith premiered her solo to the song,“We Shall Behold Him.” She pegs that solo as the start of her nonprofit Christian ballet company Ballet Magnificat!, founded in 1986 with her husband, Keith. The company now has an international presence and has been a trailblazer in Christian dance. A satellite trainee program in Brazil is in its second year and there’s interest in starting a school there. Thibodeaux danced on the Thalia Mara Hall stage the year it opened as Jackson Municipal Auditorium in 1968, and every year since. “Lord willing, I’ll be dancing this Christmas, and it will be my 50th anniversary on this stage.”

William Fulton headshotWilliam FultonOffstage announcer and master of ceremonies during the competition, and onstage in Round III with mistress of ceremonies Julie Kent (Washington Ballet artistic director).

After missing the past two IBCs because of prior commitments, “I’m so very happy to come back,” he says.

Fulton, a longtime director of Public Radio Mississippi (now MPB radio), now lives in New York City, where he teaches four languages (English, German, Polish, occasionally Russian) and leads cultural tours abroad and at home. He also works as an actor, mainly at the Metropolitan Opera, “sometimes as a character and sometimes as part of the living scenery. I get to be onstage at the Met, which is a heck of a lot of fun.” He’d moved to Jackson two years after the IBC’s start and was tapped as a translator for Polish juror Maria Krzyszkowska, “so, basically, I hung out with the jury all the time,” he says, in 1986 when Robert Joffrey and Bolshoi Ballet’s Yuri Grigorovich were co-chairs. “It was a pretty heady company.” He’s also co-hosted a public television live broadcast of an IBC finale and coached previous masters of ceremonies through the minefield of foreign name pronunciation. “I like to get the names the way they like it,” he says, and he likes to touch base with the dancers and “hear it from the horse’s mouth.” Fulton’s deep knowledge of classical music is a real bonus, too, IBC staffers say.

Vadim Pisarev performing in the 1980s

Photo by Hubert Worley

Vadim Pisarev competes with a broken arm at the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson in 1986.

Vadim PisarevMember of the International Jury. IBC leaders who traveled to the international ballet competition in Moscow in 2017 say Pisarev was thrilled to see Jackson IBC representatives, and leaped at the invitation to return as a juror.

Pisarev, a native of Donetsk, Ukraine, was among the first three artists from the U.S.S.R. to compete in Jackson in 1986. He had a broken arm during the competition, but his skill, artistry, exuberant charm and a flexible, flesh-colored cast rendered the injury all but invisible. He’s medaled at competitions around the world, been named “Best Dancer of the U.S.S.R.” (1990, Moscow public), “Best Dancer of the World” (1995, UNESCO) and “Man of the Year in Ukraine” (1996) and he’s now artistic director of the Donetsk National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater. IBC chair Carol Pucket walked up to him in Moscow and with a single word, “Bumblebee,” the years fell away and memories buzzed back. His contemporary competition piece in Jackson was choreographed to “Flight of the Bumblebee.” “We both had a great laugh,” Puckett says.

Jackson IBC fans will get to see these performers a second (or third or more) time onstage during the competition:

Katherine Barkman headshotKatherine BarkmanSenior competitor representing the United States.

In 2014, Barkman was a semi-finalist and award winner and now she returns as a principal dancer with Ballet Manila, competing in the senior couple division. Her awards included a Grand Prix Cup and silver medal in Hong Kong and gold bronze medals in international competition in New Orleans, Berlin and Spoleto, Italy. (Barkman’s Ballet Manila artistic director and mentor Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, expected to attend the IBC this year, was a senior competitor here in 1990.)

Joseph Phillips headshotJoseph PhillipsNoncompeting partner to Barkman.

Phillips won the junior men’s gold medal in Jackson in 2002 and went on to gather so much gold in dance medal wins — more than any other American dancer — he was dubbed “the golden boy of ballet.” He’s been back on the Jackson stage for IBC reunion and anniversary galas, has twice been the IBC torch bearer and partnered (noncompeting) a silver medal winner here in 2014. He and Barkman were guest artists in December in Ballet Mississippi’s “The Nutcracker.” He says the Jackson IBC audience, filled with dance industry icons from so many different countries “is probably the hardest audience you could ever have.”

Rieko Hatato headshotRieko HatatoSenior competitor representing Japan.

A competitor in Jackson in 2014, she says “I want to be inspired again.” Her competition awards include a 2018 silver in Miami and a 2013 bronze in Moscow.

Fuki Takahashi headshot

Fuki TakahashiSenior competitor representing Japan.

A 2014 competitor in Jackson, she’s coming back because “I wanted to see and compete against the best dancers from all over the world,” she says. Her awards include second place at international dance festival TANZOLYMP in Berlin.

Takahiro Hayashi headshotTakahiro HayashiSenior competitor representing Japan.

Hayashi, who took gold in ballet competitions in Kobe and Tokyo in 2016 and 2018, says “I would like to have a better dance than last time” at the IBC in Jackson in 2014.

Seitaro Tatsumi headshotSeitaro TatsumiSenior competitor representing Japan.

His awards include a third place finish at Tokyo Shinbun All Japan Dance Competition in 2018 and second place finishes at competitions in 2016 and 2011 in Japan.

Ariel Breitman headshotAriel BreitmanSenor competitor representing Israel.

A Pennsylvania native, Breitman will compete in the senior couple division; he’s won three gold medals in Youth America Grand Prix competition and one silver in international competition in Berlin. Inspired to study dance by watching hours of Baryshnikov videos, Breitman’s return to the IBC is a desire “to meet and perform alongside some of the most talented young dancers in the world…the energy and passion is inspiring and electric!”

Read more about this year’s USA IBC here.