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Boston competition, international cachet?

Founder Kozlova attracts big names in the world of ballet

“Young dancers should have experience not just in the classroom,’’ says Valentina Kozlova of the first Boston International Ballet Competition. “Young dancers should have experience not just in the classroom,’’ says Valentina Kozlova of the first Boston International Ballet Competition. (Elizabeth Lippman for The Boston Globe)
By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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It’s not just the Bruins and the Celtics who are striving for fame and glory this month. The first Boston International Ballet Competition, which starts Thursday, will see some 90 aspiring dancers from 23 countries and ranging in age from 13 to 25 strut their stuff in the hope of winning cash prizes, scholarships to ballet schools, and even contracts with ballet companies.

The force behind the competition is Valentina Kozlova, a principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet before her defection in 1979. She joined New York City Ballet in 1983 and danced there until 1995. Now she’s the director of the Dance Conservatory of New York in Manhattan, where she passes on to the next generation the training she received at the elite Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet. One of her recent students, Whitney Jensen, is a second soloist with Boston Ballet.

The seven-member jury is headed by Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen and includes such notables as former New York City Ballet principal dancer and Boston Ballet artistic director Violette Verdy and former Bolshoi star Andris Liepa.

The public can watch as contestants dance excerpts from the classical repertoire and short contemporary pieces of their own choosing, plus a compul sory piece by Edwaard Liang (for the men) or Margo Sappington (for the women). The competition ends May 16 with an awards ceremony and gala performance featuring the winners, plus high-profile guests from Boston Ballet (Jensen and Joseph Gatti), New York City Ballet (Jennie Somogyi and Charles Askegard), and Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Still, there are many international ballet competitions. Do we need another?

“Many people ask me that,’’ Kozlova acknowledges over the phone from New York. “There are several reasons. Young dancers should have experience not just in the classroom. The fact that they come onstage, that they’ve prepared for a performance in a competition, that’s already a step forward. A second reason is that when you have a deadline, your work ethic becomes completely different, your work is more professional and more serious, and you make huge progress, whether you win the competition or you don’t.’’

But why Boston, when Kozlova is in New York?

“I have a special weakness for Boston, for Massachusetts, for New England,’’ she says. “Boston makes my heart very warm; I love the city. It’s very small, very compact, everything is very accessible. You have big culture. You have a good ballet company, a very good ballet company, and a very big ballet school, so obviously there was interest there.’’

The jury list is an indicator of the respect in which Kozlova is held by her peers.

Nissinen and Kozlova have been friends for years, he says. “I’m looking forward to the competition and seeing the talent that it yields,’’ Nissinen says. “Ballet competitions can be valuable springboards for young dancers, and a place for them to really test themselves.’’

Kozlova and Nissinen both danced in the 1986 Basel Ballet version of “La Fille Mal Gardée’’ that was filmed and is available on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD.

“I met him in Basel when I was invited to do the filming,’’ Kozlova recalls. “He was a soloist in the company, and we became very good friends. He does speak Russian, and he did study at the Kirov School, so he had the training I had, and we’d hang around together, and I thought he was a very knowledgeable person and a very good young dancer. I remember him telling me that one day he wanted to be the director of a big company.’’

Kozlova and Verdy have also known each other for years. “I came back to New York City Ballet as a teacher in 1980 or 1981. She had just joined the company, because Mr. Balanchine had invited her and her husband at the time [Leonid Kozlov] to come as principal dancers, and she had also done “On Your Toes’’ on Broadway for him,’’ explains Verdy over the phone from Philadelphia. “She’s a super-beauty, as we all know, and a wonderful dancer, and a very, very nice person.

“She was a typically lyrical Russian dancer, a dancer of importance, and she did some wonderful things with the company. Now she has her school, and I’m not surprised she would want to do something like this, because it has been a tradition with the Russians, the competition. It’s one of the ways they had to make oneself known, and to bring back glory for the country.’’

“I think it’s very nice for Boston, don’t you?’’ Verdy continues. “Boston has such an important ballet company, it’s one of the great companies in this country, so why not?’’

The dancers, most of them teenagers, will be staying in hotels near the competition’s two home bases: the Boston Ballet studios, where they’ll rehearse, and John Hancock Hall, where they’ll perform. But Kozlova scotches any notion that they’ll be on their own. “They may be staying in their own rooms, but they won’t be alone. We’re all together. The most important thing is to accommodate the dancers. They have to feel taken care of and loved.’’

And will there be a second Boston International Ballet Competition?

“We have to see whether Boston will be attracted to this kind of competition,’’ says Kozlova. “Will people be interested in seeing the growth of young dancers and how demanding it is?’’

She cites famous international competitions like those in Varna, Bulgaria, Moscow, Helsinki, and Jackson, Miss., and hopes that Boston can join them.

“As far as dancer response goes, it was incredible, it was more than I expected. So many dancers applied from different countries.’’ Close to 200, which Kozlova had to cut in half after watching the dancers’ submitted videos over and over.

“It was difficult because the level of dancers was quite high, and our rehearsal and theater time is limited. And the response from dancers internationally was quite astounding for a first competition. I must say, I did not expect that. The response from big stars of dance communities worldwide was incredible, too. It seems to me that many artistic directors would be interested in being part of the judging panel. This year, I took only seven judges, but if it goes the way I would like, I will have no problem bringing in big names in the dance world.’’

Big names in the dance world, high level of dancer interest worldwide — sounds as if the first-ever Boston International Ballet Competition won’t be the last.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com

BOSTON INTERNATIONAL BALLET COMPETITION

At: John Hancock Hall, May 12-16. Tickets: $20-25 (competition); $35-$100 (gala); www.bostonibc.org