By Sergey Gordeev Produced by Joe Alexander
Looking at Larissa Savveleiev glued to her cell phone while sipping fresh juice at Fabio Cucina Italiana in midtown, you would not guess that she has revolutionized the way dance schools and companies all over the world discover young talent.
Fifteen years ago, two immigrants from Russia, former dancers with the Bolshoi Ballet, Larissa and Gennadi Saveliev found themselves in New York. They had escaped the seemingly glamorous world of the Bolshoi Ballet because, as Larissa explains, “things were really stagnant at that time – both in the country and at the Bolshoi Theater. We wanted to dance, we wanted to grow and develop, and we wanted to create a future for ourselves and for our child.”
Gennadi got a job dancing with the American Ballet Theatre, and Larissa started teaching. “I found it exciting to help young dancers grow into serious artists and I wanted to grow as a teacher. So I started looking for a place where I could compare my students to others and learn from other teachers – but I didn’t find one! So I decided to create my own.” This was the birth of Youth America Grand Prix.
Remembering the ballet competitions of their youth – where schools, teachers and students from all over the Soviet Union gathered annually to showcase young talent, the Savelievs decided to start a ballet competition in America. But, after talking to teachers and school directors, Larissa realized the concept of a student ballet competition was completely new to this country. “Our biggest challenge was to change the American attitude towards competitions, to break through the wall of prejudice against competitions among serious ballet schools,” Larissa recalls. “In 1999, there were only jazz competitions – and, for serious ballet dancers, it was the antithesis of artistry or the serious study of ballet. “
Larissa explained how she managed to change the negative attitude towards ballet competitions in the US. “We promised as many talented students as we could find that they will be seen by the top dance professionals in the world; we promised directors of the top ballet schools that they will see some of the most talented students in the U.S. – and they believed us. Then we delivered both.”
In the first year, YAGP held semi-finals in three cities in the U.S. and managed to convince 8 American schools to present scholarships at the Finals in New York. Fifteen years later, it boasts a jury panel representing 30 of the world’s leading dance academies, including Paris Opera Ballet, Royal Ballet School, Canada’s National Ballet School, La Scala Ballet Academy, and Stuttgart Ballet’s John Cranko School. They annually award over $300,000 in scholarships to their schools – and, aided by these scholarships, more than 300 of YAGP alumni now dance with 80 companies around the world.
Larissa pauses as she considers what it took to make such an incredible journey. “A lot of work and an amazing team of people who believed in YAGP from the start including our great Board. And – just the fact that this was the right idea at the right time. The world was ready for this. ”
As YAGP grew the Savelievs recognized that it is not enough to prepare just the future dancers; it is also important to educate future dance audiences. With that in mind, they have created their annual Gala in New York City – “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow ” – featuring international ballet stars alongside the finalists of the competition.
This year’s Gala at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater on April 10th will bring to NYC the hottest star of the Bolshoi Ballet, Olga Smirnova, international ballet diva Lucia Lacarra, American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland and YAGP Alumana Skylar Brandt as well as stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, New York City Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Canada’s National Ballet, internationally renowned ballroom dancers – and the exciting young dance talent the Saveliev’s have handpicked from 30 countries around the world. There will be a second program on April 11th.
Larissa concudes “All this is great, last year we had Woody Allen, Donald Trump, and David Koch himself come to the Gala! But the real reason we continue to do what we do are the kids. It is the boy from the Brazilian favelas who is now dancing with Stuttgart Ballet, it is the boy from Columbia who is now a member of English National Ballet, it is the Japanese girl who last year joined the American Ballet Theatre. All these kids might never have had the chance to be seen and discovered for the true talents that they are. But, thanks to YAGP, they were. And that makes it all worth it.”
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The YAGP 15th Anniversary Galas will take place at the David H. Koch Theater of Lincoln Center.
Tickets at 212.496.0600 or