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Ballet dancers embrace 'feeling you get on stage' in bid to make elite competition

SALT LAKE CITY — As she prepared to put on a ballet dance performance fashioned to charm a panel of judges Saturday at the University of Utah's Marriott Center of Dance, 16-year-old Olivia Latham admitted it: She had some jitters.

"I'm a little nervous. But I'm not trying to be," Latham said, noting that most of the pressure she was feeling was the kind that she puts on herself. "I'm trying to just have fun."

One thing the Salt Lake City teen had going in her favor was the fact that the act of dancing itself puts her in her best spirits, that being under the lights is when she feels the most free.

"Just performing, the feeling you get on stage, is so different and just makes my heart happy," she said.

Latham was among hundreds of ballet dancers from around Utah who came together Saturday to compete in the regional semifinals of the Youth America Grand Prix, with the the hopes of qualifying for a prestigious national competition in New York City this spring.

The competition is one of 26 that Youth America Grand Prix is hosting in the United States, plus nine internationally, among ballet dancers ages 9 to 19. Age categories separate performers to 11 and under, 12 to 14, and 15 and older.

Competition founder Larissa Saveliev said only the "top of the top" dancers at regional competitions are invited to compete at the organization's finals April 13-20 in New York City. There, dancers can qualify for dance scholarships and make impressions on the world's most renowned dance companies.

"We try to match them up with the top ballet schools in the world," Saveliev said. "That's pretty much our mission. ... We're looking for talents everywhere we go."

Saveliev praised Utah as a ripe source for finding first-rate ballet.

"In Utah we have seen quite a few strong dancers historically," she told the Deseret News.

She chalked that up to a high number of dancers who have strong parental support due to an emphasis on "family values" in the state.

"That translates to a strong work ethic," Saveliev said.

The regional competitions are also filled with opportunities beyond auditions, with chances to participate in classes and workshops put on by some of the most well-known names in ballet. At Utah's event, that included Bruce Marks, an acclaimed ballet performer, choreographer and coach who oversaw Salt Lake City's Ballet West as artistic director for several years beginning in the 1970s.

"They see each other dance, form friendships that last for their entire lives," Marks told the Deseret News. "The process is the prize. ... They learn so much here."

Marks, who has also worked as artistic director of the Boston Ballet and chairman of the USA International Ballet Competition, now flies all over the world at the age of 81 to teach young ballet performers, whom he call his "adopted children," the art of their craft. He said he is driven by an urge to "teach why," where others only "teach what."

"I teach what the audience sees," Marks said. "You transfer the feeling (to them). That's what's exciting in dance. That's what it is. ... I don't teach arms and legs. I teach the head."

Marks also frequently serves as a judge for Youth America Grand Prix. The organization, which provides more than $250,000 each year in performance scholarships, boasts 350 alumni who participate in 80 dance companies worldwide.

Of the 7,000 ballet dancers who audition at regional competitions each year, Marks estimates 10 percent or fewer are likely to ever dance in any professional capacity. He said the purposes for the competition go far beyond simply career advancement for a select few.

"That's not important (that some don't make it that far), because the discipline of dance informs your entire life," Marks said. "We learn discipline in dance, we learn how to concentrate."

He said the performance arts "make for a well-rounded person who can do anything."

Saveliev agreed that the worldwide competition is a way to "cultivate this love for the art form of ballet," more so than an avenue for careers.

Latham said it was important for her to not only compete over the weekend, but also get a chance to learn from the best so that she can continue to improve.

"It's really good to put yourself out there and get the performing experience," she said. "It takes you out of your comfort zone and (that's) good. It's always a really fun experience to try something new."

Her own long-term plans in dance are vague for now, as she is unsure about the prospect of ever pursuing it as a professional career. But regardless of how her future in the art unfolds, Latham said, her simplest goal in dance is also her most certain one, borne out by her joy in competing: "I know I don't want to stop dancing."