Perspective: Interview with Larissa Saveliev, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Youth America Grand Prix

Cover Photo: Larissa Saveliev teaching in studio
Photo by Joe Toreno

Have you ever competed in the Youth America Grand Prix? Chances are, even if you haven't, you have at least heard of YAGP: The world's largest, non-profit international student ballet competition and scholarship program.

Since the competition's early beginnings in 1999, YAGP co-founder and Artistic Director, Larissa Saveliev, has been guiding the world-renowned dance forum through years of change, growth, and success. She has nurtured its mission of finding young, talented dancers around the world and helping develop that talent through education and performance opportunities worldwide. 

We were honored to sit down with Ms. Saveliev and learn more about her journey as a driving force behind one of the most prominent dance competitions in the world. With a successfully and safely operated pandemic competition under her belt, there is nothing this fierce creator and teacher can't accomplish! Read on to hear about Larissa's journey and her invaluable advice on getting the most out of your time at YAGP... and beyond!

As the co-founder and Artistic Director of YAGP, what was your main goal when you first started dreaming up the concept of the Youth America Grand Prix? Why did you see a need for it within the dance community?

LS: The goals for Youth America Grand Prix evolved over the years. It started with me, as a young teacher, wanting to compare my teaching techniques and the results achieved by my students with the students from other schools and other teachers. I looked for a youth ballet festival – like those that I attended in Russia as a young student at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. As it turned out, there were no ballet festivals for young students in America at that time (in 1999), so I decided to create one – to give teachers across the country a forum to come together and exchange experience.

Very quickly, I realized that there was a great need for a forum for exposure for talented young students. At that point, in 1999, it was not yet the time of the internet and YouTube, so the fastest ways for a ballet dancer to be “discovered” and to receive international recognition were ballet competitions. The ballet competitions that existed in the United States at the time (the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson and the New York International Ballet Competition) existed for adults and professional-level dancers, and they took place every 3 or 4 years. There was no annual forum for pre-professional dance students to be “discovered,” and where they could perform and be seen by the directors of schools and ballet institutions that could help them develop their talent by inviting them to their schools on scholarship.

So, the main idea of the competition became that of exposure. YAGP would conduct semi-final rounds across the United States, invite the most promising young dance students to perform at the Finals, and invite to the Finals the directors of the country’s leading dance institutions – with the purpose of awarding scholarships to their school as the main prizes of the competition. 

Within the first year, we realized just how important it was for such a forum to exist, and we also saw that this needed to exist not just in America, but throughout the world. So, starting with the second year, the competition became international, with the first international scholarship being awarded by the Royal Ballet School in the United Kingdom. It was quickly followed by many other international dance institutions, which was proof that this mechanism for discovery and support of talented young dancers really needed to exist.

Larissa Saveliev - photo by Joe Toreno
Larissa Saveliev teaching in studio; Photo by Joe Toreno

Since its creation in 1999, what have been some of the most significant or noteworthy changes to the competition? Have there been any surprises along the way? If so, what have those been?

LS: The competition has stayed the same in its spirit and purpose, but the way in which it is conducted has certainly changed. From the national competition in the first year, it is now international; it has become the world’s largest global dance network. With evolving technologies, the way the competitions are conducted has also changed and now includes the possibility of conducting auditions completely online.

The biggest surprise to us was just how much YAGP has grown, which showed just how much of a need there is in the world for young dancers to be seen and supported.

The pandemic, of course, was another big “surprise,” but, like any challenge, it only made it even more clear to us how important it is what we do. If nothing else, it showed that when you really want something and believe in it, you will find a way to do it. We are so deeply inspired by all the dancers who have continued training in their kitchens, living rooms, garages, and driveways, and have demonstrated true commitment to their art. That inspired us at YAGP to do the seemingly impossible – to conduct, mid-pandemic, when everything was shut down, a full season of LIVE semi-finals across the country. (Of course, safely, and with strict adherence to all health and safety protocols). Again, when you believe in something, there will always be a way to make things possible.
 

Has your initial mission evolved over time, or does it still remain the same as it did when you held the first competition?

LS: The mission of YAGP has always been and will always remain the same: to find promising young dance talent and help develop that talent through education and performance opportunities worldwide.

 

Siena Espana; Photo by Star Action Shots
Siena Espana; Photo by Star Action Shots

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when building YAGP from the ground up? How did you overcome them?

LS: One of the biggest challenges in the beginning was to get people to believe in YAGP and to change the preconception that existed among most ballet programs against the idea of a dance competition. In late 1990's, the only associations with dance competitions were jazz competitions, and I literally was told by some people that if a school would participate in a dance competition, it must mean that it is not a serious ballet program.

"So, we literally had to change the world’s mind about competitions."

So, we literally had to change the world’s mind about competitions. We had to create a paradigm shift, to convince school directors, teachers, and parents that it is possible to conduct a serious ballet competition where artistry would be valued and encouraged above “tricks” and “pyrotechnics.” It was not an easy task, but over time, we succeeded. As they say in England, “the proof is in the pudding." Now, some of the world’s most respected ballet institutions send their students to participate in YAGP and participate themselves as scholarship presenters looking for talented students to join their school.

When conducting auditions for YAGP, I know that they are held both within the U.S. and internationally across multiple continents. Why is it so important for the organization to seek talent in all corners of the world? How do you think that makes YAGP, and thus the dance world, stronger, as a whole?

LS: What makes the world – and the dance world – stronger as a whole is diversity. We at YAGP believe that there is a “home” for every talented young dancer. So, the more corners of the world we can reach, the more different kinds of dancers we can find and give opportunities to grow, the better the entire dance world will be as a whole.

We also believe that interaction, exchange of knowledge and experiences between different artists, and teachers and jury members from many different parts of the world are very important to the development and growth of dance as an art form. And, since we believe that the arts make this world a better place, anything that helps the arts grow and develop (like cultural exchange), helps make our world better.

Isobel Rose Lehman; Photo by Star Action Shots
Isobel Rose Lehman; Photo by Star Action Shots

Do you have any advice for hopeful students that are either auditioning for or competing at YAGP in the coming years? 

LS: When you go to YAGP, go for the right reasons. Instead of focusing on placement or prizes, focus on the real value of participating in YAGP: exposure and the process.

Focusing on the process means that the best way to grow as a dancer is to focus not on the results, but on the process that will take you to those results. Focus on your training, focus on your performance, and you will be a better dancer with each performance. One of the greatest gifts for dancers participating in YAGP is the process that it takes to prepare for the competition: the training, the learning of new choreography, the practice and the performance of it. Also, it is about the experience, or the process, of participating in the competition itself. Enjoy the process, and you will get so much more out of your experience at YAGP.

Also, know that the main prizes of YAGP are not 1st, 2nd or 3rd places. It is the exposure that you gain when performing. You never know who is watching, in person or via livestream. So often, we see a judge or a teacher from a scholarship presenting institution noticing a dancer and remembering them, following them... only to offer them a scholarship to their school or even a job at a company at a later point (maybe even a year or two later), when they think the dancer is ready.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of YAGP is the opportunity for dancers to come together, perform and be inspired by other dancers. When coming to YAGP, please keep in mind that one of the best parts of the experience is meeting other people. Talk to them, introduce yourself, ask them questions, tell them about yourself, learn what you can by both meeting fellow young artists and just observing them. You never know – some of these encounters with fellow dancers may turn into lifelong friendships.

Does YAGP support and promote budding choreographers, and if so, how?

LS: We at YAGP believe in supporting dance talent in every way possible. To give upcoming choreographers a chance to present their work to the international dance community, we have created the Emerging Choreographer Series. The series has given a platform for Camille A. Brown, Marcelo Gomes, Adam Hougland, Susan Jaffe, and Justin Peck to present their work at YAGP Galas around the world, and the list of choreographers keeps growing.

We also believe in recognizing choreographic talent at regional level; we present an Outstanding Choreographer Award at almost every semi-final and at the Finals. We hope that this recognition will give them a boost in developing their talent.

Natalie Steele; Photo by Star Action ShotsNatalie Steele; Photo by Star Action Shots

What would you tell dancers who don’t quite make it to the Finals or win a title/award?

LS: The most important prizes at YAGP are not the placement or titles; the main prize is exposure. And, you never know who is watching, either in person or via livestream. Also, judges always notice talent... and they talk to each other; if they see you at a regional level as a dancer to watch, they will tell other school directors about you and follow you - often without you even realizing that.

With so many semi-finals around the world, we have made a concerted effort to make each event a complete experience in itself – so it is not all about the Finals. More and more scholarships are offered at the regional level, and, like we said before, it is all about the process of preparation and training, performing, meeting fellow dancers, and thus growing as an artist yourself.

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