Typhoon warnings, iPad overheatings and a small earthquake: battling the elements is not something most ballet competitions have to factor into their planning. But the Royal Academy of Dance’s The Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition (formerly the Genée) can lay claim to being both one of the world’s most prestigious dance competitions and to a surprising history of weather-related anecdotes. That’s because, since 2002, the event has been hosted by flagship venues across the world.
Those typhoon warnings, for example, were issued as a precaution prior to the 2018 Hong Kong event, while the score-playing iPad overheated at a pop-up event in Sydney, Australia in 2016. Most dramatically, the small earthquake occurred while participants readied themselves one morning in Wellington, New Zealand in 2012.
This year, the competition comes home to London for the first time since 2015. It’s a celebratory moment, marking a welcome return to in-person events following an online version of the competition during the Covid pandemic in 2021. It will also give competitors the chance to experience the RAD’s bespoke new headquarters in Battersea where they will train and perform in the semi-finals. And this year, all candidates will learn a new work by guest choreographer, Valentino Zucchetti of the Royal Ballet. This will be performed at the final at His Majesty’s Theatre (famously, the home of The Phantom of the Opera). Previously, male and female dancers were taught different pieces of choreography, whereas this year audiences will see an ensemble performance by all participants, regardless of whether they have individually made it through to the final.
Previous medal winners include Alexander Campbell, Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward, Céline Gittens and Steven MacRae (more on whom later). Following their Fonteyn forays, participants have gone on to dance with companies such as the Royal Ballet, Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, English National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. For 2023, over 80 candidates will battle it out, from the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Malaysia, New Zealand, Mexico, Japan, Cyprus, Hong Kong and Indonesia.
Unsurprisingly, a competition of this size and scope requires organisation on something approaching a military scale. The RAD’s Head of Events and Special Projects, Sarah-Jane Lewis – who also experienced that brief morning shake-up in Wellington – has worked behind the scenes on ten successive competitions. She finds the Dancer’s Own variation, choreographed by the dancer themselves, especially exciting, because it gives students the chance to display their own individuality and taste. ‘They get to choose their own music, costume and choreography and sometimes you’ll see the influence from the country they come from, like Mexico, for example. It’s amazing just to see the creativity.’
Typically, Lewis and her colleagues start planning each international event several years in advance while also working simultaneously on the current year’s event. There are often multiple venues to source for the coaching, semi-finals and final, and there is a complex timetable of classes and coaching sessions. During the online year, this included Zoom call classes with 118 participants calling in from different locations across the world.
As well as navigating the complexities of organising a global event on this scale, Lewis also describes how the RAD is committed to supporting candidates to participate through a bursary scheme, made possible by generous donations and philanthropic support.
One of the other masterminds behind all this is candidate coordinator Maria O’Connor. An all-encompassing figure, O’Connor is the go-to person for students, teachers and parents. Her role allows her to really get to know the dancers and their abilities. She recalls being instantly bowled over by dancers like Xander Parish who won silver in 2004 in Athens at a much-loved final held under the stars in an open-air amphitheatre. ‘But what’s equally important to me,’ she says, ‘are all the candidates who don’t make it through to the final and how brilliant they are.’
Along with the medallists, O’Connor also remembers people like Ashley Shaw who entered three times and never made it through to the final, but has nonetheless has gone onto a brilliant career dancing with Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures. ‘You’re not always going to agree with the judges!’ laughs O’Connor. ‘But as we all know, getting to the final isn’t always important.’
Even amongst those who have won medals, there’s a strong feeling that entering The Fonteyn offers more than the chance to grab some silverware. Julian Wen-Sheng Gan, who won silver and the Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award in Toronto in 2019, recalls the simple ‘joy’ of taking part. ‘It was unforgettable and made me feel like all the hard work and sacrifices were worth it.’
Gan, who was the first Malaysian dancer to win a medal, also emphasises the welcoming and friendly atmosphere present throughout the competition – something many people are keen to mention – and the enduring friendships he made while in Canada. His advice to 2023 entrants is: ‘just enjoy the process and getting acquainted with new people. For me, that’s more valuable than what you’ll get if you just focus entirely on the prize.’
Amelia Soh, who won bronze at the 2021 online competition, echoes this sentiment. ‘There is so much more to The Fonteyn than winning a medal,’ she enthuses. For Soh, an Australian dancer, the competition gave her ‘a massive boost of confidence during the Covid lockdowns’ and acted as a launchpad to future successes. Shortly after her win, she went onto compete at the Prix de Lausanne, followed by a tour of America which included a game-changing visit to the San Francisco Ballet, where she now trains on a full scholarship.
The international aspect of The Fonteyn offers applicants exactly this kind of opportunity to connect with companies and schools, which is one of its attractions for students. Hilary Kaplan, an RAD teacher based in Australia who has had formidable success preparing candidates for the competition, mentions how students can also use the trip abroad as an opportunity to attend auditions close by. Kaplan’s first ever student in the competition was MacRae, who won gold on home turf in Sydney in 2002 and, shortly afterwards, went to join the Royal Ballet School in London. The rest, as they say, is history. ‘It was a pleasure preparing Steven for it because he was so hungry. He wanted everything to be perfect,’ Kaplan says.
Since then, she has gone on to prepare numerous other medal winners and participants. Her methodology includes not practicing a specific dance for months in advance – ‘it can go stale’ – and instead focusing on technique or isolated steps. But the psychological side is just as important as well. ‘If you get eaten up by nerves all the time, that in itself can destroy your performance,’ she warns. ‘Steven loved to dance so much. I’m sure he did get nervous, but he just wanted to be up there [on stage] and be the star. And that’s half the battle.’
Endalyn T Outlaw, Dean of Dance at the University of North Carolina, will coach members of the 2023 cohort in their chosen solos. Speaking on Why Dance Matters, the RAD podcast, she likewise emphasises the need for students to feel comfortable in themselves and their abilities. ‘I lead with: your best self is enough, whatever that is, you can only be you.’
In the past, Outlaw explains, ballet had a tradition of discouraging dancers from expressing individuality or opinions. ‘I think now we’re encouraging students to have agency and autonomy and voices,’ she muses. She wants students to know she, and the other Fonteyn coaching staff, won’t be trying to mould students into something they’re not. ‘As a coach, I just want to give them the space to find the things that they need within themselves to elevate what it is they’re going to present.’
Friendship, footwork and a fearless belief in your own identity are just three things dancers in this year’s competition could do well to think about. That, and perhaps bringing a sturdy brolly for protection against any October rain. London might not require typhoon warnings, and we’re unlikely to get overheating issues or earthquakes, but it does promise to be the backdrop to a special edition of a competition that illuminates the stars of the tomorrow.
The Fonteyn has been held at glamorous venues around the world
Rosemary Waugh is an art critic and journalist, writing for titles including the New Statesman, Financial Times, The i, Evening Standard, Time Out and The Stage. Her first book, Running the Room: Conversations with Women Theatre Directors is published in 2023.