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Ballet Competitions: changing dance education in Japan

2018-11-15 by Helen Price

Christopher Powney, artistic director of The Royal Ballet School, has posted an article on his school’s website, “Ballet competition culture: are we putting young dancers at risk?” Mr Powney gives a clear outline of the benefits and risks for dance students entering ballet competitions, pointing out that while competitions such as the Prix de Lausanne have age restrictions that aim to mitigate risk for the younger dancers it is the training in the years leading up to such competitions that can, potentially, damage growing children. He ends his article with a call to the dance industry as a whole to keep the wellbeing of students at the forefront of our policy-making and to engage in serious conversation about ballet competitions.

I’d like to add my voice to the conversation. 
Nowhere is the ballet competition culture felt more keenly than in Japan, where I have been living and teaching for the past 30 years. The belief that a student MUST compete to realize a career in dance has become disturbingly pervasive. The Prix de Lausanne 2019 list of applicants and selected entrants by country illustrates the popularity of competition in Japan.

Are the schools that award scholarships to Japanese winners of ballet competitions aware of the effect it has had on the way ballet is taught in Japan?

Every time a Japanese dancer wins at a competition such as Prix de Lausanne, and is awarded a scholarship to a prestigious professional training program, aspiring Japanese ballet dancers, and their teachers and parents, are watching. One would hope that seeing the winners’ success would inspire these ballet teachers and parents to give their children the foundation, technical and emotional, that will prepare them by the age of 15 to be able to compete effectively if they so choose.

The reality is, sadly, very different. Due in part to a uniquely Japanese approach to education, the general thinking is that the best way to succeed at competition is to practice doing competition. Consequently, there are competitions for all stages of the journey. Young students can begin with pre-competitions (for applicants as young as 6), move on to the more higher ranked ones, and hope eventually to become one of the entrants at a major competition offered a scholarship to a world class school. Ballet competition is big business here in Japan.

Needless to say, there are many young dancers who don’t achieve success. What they get from their 10 plus years practising to be a successful competitor we can only imagine. I suspect that it is not all positive.

I think it is also worth noting that the effects of the “competition culture” have seeped down to the recreational ballet level. Rather than enjoying the life benefits of studying dance these students often feel that they are not doing “real ballet” if it doesn’t involve competition. Not to miss out on a business opportunity, competitions for recreational students, including adult students, now exist.

While there is so much talk these days about the health benefits of dance, both physically and mentally, it makes it even more frustrating to think that, under our watch, some children may actually be damaged by the ballet lessons they attend. 

Surely there is a better way than competition for professional training programs to discover and nurture talent.

I applaud the schools that are also coming to Japan to hold auditions for their training programs, thus giving Japanese students a pathway to a dance career that doesn’t involve competition.

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