The prestigious international ballet competition returns to Australia where our own Steven McRae won Gold in 2002.

In 2002, the Genée International Ballet Competition was held in Sydney – the first time in its history that the presigious event had been held outside London. What’s more, in a fairytale ending for locals, young Sydney dancer Steven McRae, now a Principal at The Royal Ballet, won the coveted Gold Medal. In December, the competition – a flagship event of The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) in London – returns to Sydney, a move welcomed by the Australian dance community.

Australian dancer Steven McRae in Romeo and Juliet at The Royal Ballet. Photo by Bill Cooper

McRae has just been announced as the Genée’s 2016 Ambassador. Speaking to Limelight from London, he says: “The Adeline Genée competition was a major turning point in my career. It was the first time I was able to compete at an international level. Stepping on stage at the Sydney Opera House in front of an extremely supportive local audience was incredible and winning the Gold Medal at home was a dream! To have my parents and my teacher there to witness everything made it that much more special.”

“I clearly remember the feeling of the week being much more of a nurturing and developmental experience rather than a harsh competition,” says McRae. “I am so excited for the next generation of Australian dancers to experience the Genée, especially as it is back home in Sydney. I hope the dancers can take away from the competition so many great lessons and pieces of advice that they can hold onto throughout their careers.”

Named after the RAD’s first President, Dame Adeline Genée, the competition first took place in 1931 and has been staged most years since. Open to dancers aged 15 to 19 from around the world, trained in the RAD syllabus, competitors receive coaching from highly regarded choreographers and teachers over five days in the lead-up to the semi-finals and final. The Genée has launched the careers of many young ballet dancers, with medalists going on to dance with companies around the world including the Australian Ballet, The Mariinsky Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, English National Ballet and The Royal Ballet in London.

Among the many other Australian ballet dancers besides McRae to have won medals at the Genée are Leanne Benjamin who won Gold in 1981 and went on to become a principal with the Royal Ballet, former Australian Ballet Principals Simone Goldsmith who won Gold in 1993, Olivia Bell who won Gold in 1994 and Kirsty Martin who won silver in 1995, and current Australian Ballet principals Lana Jones and Amber Scott who won Silver and Bronze respectively in 1999. Last year, 15-year old Lania Atkins won Silver and 15-year old Makensie Henson won Bronze.

Lania Atkins who won the Silver Medal at the 2015 Genée International Ballet Competition. Photo by Elliott Franks and Royal Academy of Dance

After striking out and staging the event overseas for the first time in Sydney in 2002, the Genée has since been held in Athens, Hong Kong, Toronto, Singapore, Cape Town, Wellington, Glasgow and Antwerp, as well as returning to London in 2010 and 2015. In Sydney this year, the semi-finals will be held at The Concourse Theatre, Chatswood from December 7 to 9, while the final will take place at the Sydney Opera House on December 11. A record 97 dancers from 14 countries will compete.

Judges for 2016 are David McAllister, Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet and Francesco Ventrigilia, Artistic Director of the Royal New Zealand Ballet. This year’s commissioned choreographer, who creates a solo for the dancers to perform, is the Australian Ballet’s Resident Choreographer Tim Harbour.

McAllister describes the return of the Genée to Australia as “really exciting. Over the history of the Genée, it’s been won so many times by Australians and the fact that they held it in Australia for the very first time that it was held outside the UK is, I think, a testament to the contribution that Australian dance has had to the competition. So it’s great that it’s coming back and I’m sure it will mean that there will be a big contingent of Australian competitors. Hopefully we will have another Australian winner like last time with Steven McRae, now a star of the Royal Ballet.”

“Sydney has a long history of dance competitions through the City of Sydney Eisteddfod and the various other eisteddfods that happen around the state and, really now, across the whole of Australia. But it’s rare that an international competition is held in Australia,” says McAllister. “I think the Genée is a fantastic competition. It’s one of the ones that is not all about who is going to win. There is an opportunity for the young dancers to have that experience of learning and growing because they are all coached. Fiona Tonkin [the AB’s Artistic Associate and Principal Coach] is going to be one of the coaches and they will get to learn a new solo that is going to be created by Tim Harbour so it’s a learning and developmental experience. Obviously there is a winner but it’s more about that opportunity for these young dancers to get together and have that communal experience.”