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Erik Bruhn Prize makes for an exciting evening at the ballet

The Erik Bruhn Prize, awarded Tuesday night in Toronto, offered an evening of bold ballet as dancers from around the world battled for the $7,500 prize.

The competition to highlight emerging young dancers gets a thumbs up from our film critic

Boston Ballet choregrapher Yury Yanowsky, National Ballet of Canada's Hannah Fischer and Carlo Di Lanno of San Franscio accepting the Erik Bruhn Prize in Toronto. (Bruce Zinger)

I’m not an expert in ballet by any stretch. More like an amateur admirer. With a daughter who went through her tutu phase and a regular attendee at the National Ballet of Canada, I’ve often enjoyed the graceful art form.

But the awarding of the Erik Bruhn Prize Tuesday night at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts was like nothing I’ve ever seen. 

The audience was filled with young people, aspiring dancers, students and fans. 

Named after one of the finest male dancers of his generation, who also served as artistic director for the National Ballet of Canada, the Erik Bruhn Prize was established by The National Ballet of Canada in 1988 to shine a light on excellent emerging dancers. 

The competition sees five pairs from different international ballet companies perform for a panel of judges. Up for grabs is $7,500, a sculpture, and the prestige that comes with the win.

The night was divided into two sections. First, couples performed a classical pas de deux, then after a break, a contemporary piece.

No typical night at the ballet

As soon as Sebastian Haynes of the the Royal Danish Ballet began leaping across the stage I realized this was no typical night at the ballet. The feeling in the room was more like a sports match. Audience members hooted and hollered, cheered and gasped as each dancer tried to top one another.   

"Jesus!" exclaimed the woman behind me when Boston’s Junxiong  Zhao performed a difficult series of bounding leaps. 

The classical portion of the evening highlighted the strength and precision of the dancers, filled with what seemed to be a ballet version of triple lutzes. Stunning physical feats, set to the music of Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

Standout performances

With a wide range of dancers and companies, each performance stood apart: the sheer athleticism and power of the Royal Danish dancers versus the precision of Boston’s Ji Young Chae and Junxiong Zhao.

Hannah Fischer in The Sleeping Beauty at The Eleventh International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize. (Bruce Zing)
Hannah Fischer and Ethan Watts represented the National Ballet of Canada. With home court advantage they took to the stage to an enthusiastic roar from the crowd and performed the most emotional dance of the five: a rousing, almost fiery pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty

The San Francisco Ballet followed with the same number, but with slightly different choreography, marked by Wan Ting Zhao's mesmerizing port de bras.

The final performance of the classical portion was by Hamburg’s Futaba Ishizaki and Christopher Evans in a dance from Giselle —an aching tale of love and loss. It was nowhere near as forceful or muscular as some of the earlier portions, but filled with sensitivity and a surprising amount of storytelling.

Bold ballet and modern movement

After intermission came the contemporary portion of the evening. 

Free of the rigid classical choreography, the pairs showed remarkable range. The dancers from Denmark threw themselves, rolling across the stage. Boston Ballet’s Ji Young Chae shook her limbs like a rag doll. Fischer and Watts of the National Ballet of Canada played to their strengths again, jerking their bodies like broken watches in an emotional piece choreographed by Robert Binet.   

The National Ballet of Canada's Hannah Fischer accepts her award at The Eleventh International Competition for The Erik Bruhn Prize. (Bruce Zinger)
As hosts Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté explained, the contemporary performances were specifically commissioned and choreographed for the contest. With choreographers also vying for their own $2,000 prize, it made for a night of bold ballet.

For me, the standout was again Hamburg’s Futaba Ishizaki and Christopher Evans. Their movements were wild and primal, with the dancers moving as one, pulling, tearing apart and reforming.

In the end, hometown favourite Fischer of the National Ballet and Carlo Di Lanno of San Francisco were the winners.

Yury Yanowsky of the Boston Ballet won the $2,000 Choreographic Prize for his work District.

Unfortunately for ballet fans, the Erik Bruhn Prize only takes place once every two seasons—a long time to wait for such an exciting evening.

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