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The Edmonds Beacon
May 14, 2015


Aeden Conefrey performs in Olympic Ballet Theatre’s Coppelia (Olympic Ballet Theatre)[Edmonds, Washington, USA] – Eighteen year-old Aeden Conefrey, an Edmonds native and Olympic Ballet School alumnus, placed second in the senior men’s classical category at the 2015 Philadelphia Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition.

He then went on to compete in the New York finals, where he placed in the top 12. The YAGP is the world’s largest international student dance competition and has jumpstarted the careers of many of today’s leading dancers worldwide.

A senior in high school, Conefrey has spent the 2014-15 school year training on scholarship at the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia.

For the past several months, he has spent countless hours perfecting his technique in the studio, while completing his academic studies independently. It was his prior training at Olympic Ballet School under Oleg Gorboulev and Mara Vinson that awakened his desire to dance professionally.

“Had Oleg and Mara not shown an interest in Aeden, and provided a great foundation for him, it’s not likely he would have done as well as he has,” said Conefrey’s father Kevin Conefrey, a member of the Edmonds Arts Commission.

Conefrey trained at Olympic Ballet School for three years, performing in Olympic Ballet Theatre productions such as “The Nutcracker,” “Giselle,” “Coppelia,” and even the lead in “Petrushka” with The Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall.

Looking back on his son’s time at Olympic Ballet School Kevin Conefrey said, “In the summer of 2011, Mara and Oleg first asked for permission to have Aeden participate in their upcoming Nutcracker season.

“Aeden had just finished his summer intensive and recital. Dawn-Rene and I were both hesitant – Olympic Ballet seemed like a really big commitment. Very quickly Olympic Ballet Theatre led to attending Olympic Ballet School. For three years Aeden blossomed as a ballet dancer with Olympic Ballet. Ultimately, he decided he wanted to pursue dance as a career.” Conefrey’s success at YAGP has brought offers of scholarships to continue his training at Dutch National Ballet, Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Zurich Dance Academy, as well as the Joffrey Ballet in the U.S.

Though faced with a difficult choice to make, Conefrey is headed on his path, in pursuit of his goal to dance professionally.

Harrison Lee, 14, winner of the Youth America Grand Prix (Steven Siewert) 2014-01


By Joel Meares
The Sydney Morning Herald
April 19, 2014


Four years ago, dancer Harrison Lee was invited to New York to audition to play Billy Elliot on Broadway. He danced and sang his heart out but missed out on the part by a few centimetres. ”They were looking for someone under four foot 11 (1.5 metres) and Harrison was just a tiny bit too tall,” mother Cindy said.

The role would not have been a stretch – Harrison’s life reflects Elliot’s, right down to the way he stumbled upon ballet. When he was six, Lee’s grandmother dragged him along to his younger sister’s first ballet class. He had wanted to stay in the car (Cindy says he was ”being an angry little ant”), but gran refused and made him sit in. When the music began to play, something changed. ”As soon as it started, I just wanted to get up and dance,” said Harrison, of Castle Hill. ”It just took over my body, it went through me.” He began tapping his feet, his eyes widened. He promptly marched over to the teacher and asked to join in the class.

Harrison, 14, this month took out the world’s most prestigious ballet prize for young people, the Youth America Grand Prix. Over six days, across six venues in New York, Harrison danced in workshops and in staged performances with 440 dancers from 31 countries, all under the gaze of adjudicators and scouts from the world’s best ballet schools.

Harrison Lee, 14, winner of the Youth America Grand Prix (Steven Siewert) 2014-02During the April 9 final, held at the David Koch Theatre at Lincoln Centre, home of the New York City Ballet, Harrison performed a variation from classical ballet Flames of Paris, originally choreographed by Vasily Vainonen. It is a huge task – a dynamic, spiralling, leap-filled piece – and Harrison executed it beautifully, striding cleanly and elegantly ”That was a lot of pressure,” he said of the final performance. ”Everyone else in my section was bringing more to their performances. I just wanted to go out there and smash it and give it my all.”

The next day he won the junior grand prix prize, singling him out as the best overall junior male or female dancer. He received scholarship offers to join the American Ballet Theatre school in New York and the Royal Ballet School in London – he could be living in either city as soon as September – and emails are still rolling in inviting him to more schools.

Backstage during competitions, he ignored the antics of other dancers. ”It’s very fierce,” he said. ”There are a lot of mind games that go on backstage. People put each other off by showing off in front of them to scare them. I usually just stick my headphones in and block everyone else out.”

Cindy said Harrison had not faced much teasing or bullying because of his dancing. ”In year 2, the kids had to stand up and say their name and something about themselves,” Cindy said. ”He stood up and said ‘I’m Harrison and I’m going to be a famous dancer.’ And that was it.”


Copyright © 2014 Fairfax Media


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Haruo Niyama, Yuki Sugiura and Jun Masuda pose in New York  after winning top prizes in the Youth America Grand Prix (Kenji Kato, The Yomiuri Shimbun) 2014

The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun
Jiji Press
April 11, 2014

[New York City, New York, USA] – Japan’s Haruo Niyama won first place Thursday in the senior division for men in this year’s Youth America Grand Prix, one of the world’s largest student ballet competitions.

The senior division is for dancers aged 15 to 19. Niyama, a 17-year-old high school student in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, drew attention after winning the top prize in the 2014 Prix de Lausanne, a prestigious international competition for young ballet dancers, in February.

“I think he was under pressure after winning the top prize in Lausanne,” his 26-year-old sister, Hitomi, said. “I’m happy he was able to dance as usual,” she said.

Jun Masuda, a 13-year-old from Osaka Prefecture, also won first place in the YAGP’s junior division for men aged 12 to 14.

The U.S. ballet competition is held annually in New York and is open to student dancers of all nationalities aged 9 to 19.

© 2014 The Yomiuri Shimbun

Related Article:  Haruo Niyama, 17, wins Prix de Lausanne

Austen Acevedo, 14, finished second in his age range of 12-14 and Blake  16, placed third in his range, 15-19.

Orlando Ballet School student Austen Acevedo      Blake Kessler, JuniorYAGP NYC 2011

By Alice Robb
The New Republic
October 14, 2013

The International Olympic Committee recently voted [September 2013] to restore wrestling to the Olympic Games in 2016. One activity that’s never been put before the committee: ballet. Despite its physical similarities to gymnastics, ice-skating and ballroom dance, most ballet dancers would bristle at the suggestion that it’s a sport—and yet, many ballet teachers and directors have embraced Olympic-style competitions in which aspiring dancers compete for gold, silver and bronze medals, scholarships, contracts and even cash.

“The curious thing about dance now, and ballet in particular,” Jennifer Homans recently argued in The New Republic [October 4, 2013], “is that it has taken the form but left the feeling. Artists today seem more attached to form than perhaps ever before—wedded to concept, abstraction, gymnastic moves and external appearance.” This dearth of feeling might have something to do with the growth of competition culture, in which artistry is scored and treated as just another variable. For instance, at the Youth America Grand Prix, the biggest annual student competition, artistry and technique are equally weighted, with each evaluated on a 100-point scale. And some students at many of the world’s top ballet schools, like the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre and London’s Royal Ballet School, are recruited through competitions like the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP), the New York International Ballet Competition, and the Prix de Lausanne.

While ballet companies worldwide have been struggling to attract audiences and donors, competitions have been growing ever bigger and more commercial. The last few decades have seen increasing participation and corporate sponsorship, as well as the founding of new competitions like YAGP in 1999 and the World Ballet Competition (WBC) in 2007. At YAGP, the biggest student competition, over 5,000 participants— some as young as nine—vie for scholarships, cash, and even modeling contracts. YAGP was further popularized by the well-received 2011 documentary First Position, which follows six contestants as they make their way from the regional preliminaries to the finals in New York.

Needless to say, some traditionalists object. “I don’t like the idea of that kind of competition,” said Carol Sumner, who danced as a soloist at New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. “To be a great dancer doesn’t mean to have a great technique. What you have to be is interesting. Mr. B [Balanchine] said he chose dancers that are interesting to look at, he chose dancers that he wanted to see everyday—not necessarily the strongest ones.” But being interesting to look at won’t get you far when you’re being scored on the height of your extensions and the number of pirouettes you can turn.

Competitions may be especially detrimental for young dancers, who haven’t had a chance to develop a sense of artistry. “Kids sitting in the audience, they get wowed when they see a kid do four or five pirouettes or see their leg go over their head,” said Susan Jaffe, Dean of Dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and former Ballet Mistress at American Ballet Theatre. “This is pure physical talent and that, of course, is not where the art of ballet lives.”

The rise in student ballet competitions might have something to do with the growing competitiveness of all children’s activities, from chess tournaments to spelling bees. Little League baseball—whose “world series” is now broadcast on ESPN—was founded in 1939; North America’s first international ballet competition was organized 25 years later. In The Atlantic last month, Harvard sociologist Hilary Levey Friedman relates the rise of competitive children’s sports to the frenzy surrounding college admissions as students scramble to fill out the “awards” section on their college applications. TV shows like Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, which have both been running since 2005, might also have played a role in normalizing dance contests.

Homans and other critics and dancers lament that ballet is no longer the crowd-pleasing, exciting spectacle it was a century ago. “It is worth recalling that when Sleeping Beauty premiered in Russia in 1890, it was like watching Technicolor for the first time: controversial, visually overwhelming, a new way of seeing,” she writes. This is hard to imagine today; contemporary audiences consist disproportionately of dancers and ex-dancers. “Dancers in competitions are just pleasing each other, pleasing their peers, pleasing the judges,” said Sumner. “It’s kind of incestuous.”

This is not to say that ballet is not inherently competitive. Dancers at every level compete constantly—for spots in summer programs and schools, for attention from teachers and directors, for roles and promotions. But there’s a difference between competitive rivalry and formalized competition. Homans writes that ballet today suffers from “too much athleticism” and a “fear of feeling.” What could be more likely to exacerbate the emphasis on technique than training dancers to please a panel of trained judges rather than a general audience?

© Copyright 2014 The New Republic

Thomas Dilley, 15, has been selected to compete in the finals of the YAGP in New York, He trains full time at Tuggerah at Premiere Elite (Source News Limited) 2014

By Emma Herd
Central Coast Gosford Express Advocate
February 12, 2014

[Bateau Bay, New South Wales Australia] – Thomas Dilley has capped off an incredible comeback from injury with selection in the finals of the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition in New York.  Dilley, 15, of Bateau Bay, who was unable to walk for four months last year after breaking a bone in his foot, has rebounded to be in better form than ever.

But even he was blown away when he was informed of his selection in the top 350 dancers from 7000 entrants worldwide for the prestigious competition. His application DVD – which included a performance of Le Corsaire – was submitted in November, with emails checked frequently in the ensuing months.

Dilley received the news by email on his birthday on February 15 – the ultimate present for the aspiring professional dancer. “I was really shocked and just really excited,’’ Dilley said.

While he has been dancing since the age of five, he didn’t move into classical ballet training until age 12, which is when he started working with dance instructor Kahlia Mehmet, of Premiere Elite, Tuggerah. Mehmet said the potential was always there with Dilley and his dedication to his craft has been constant.

“He’s put in a lot of work – he’s now full time and home schooled – the effort has been huge to get him to this point,’’ she said. “It’s been all his hard work and dedication.’’

With his trip to New York less than two months away, Dilley is preparing to take on the best in the world, while his parents work out how to secure the funds to make it happen.

Thomas Dilley, 15, has been selected to compete in the finals of the YAGP  in New York (photo - News Limited) 2014

Julie and David Dilley couldn’t be more proud of the youngest of their six children. “When the acceptance came through I just started shaking,’’ Mr Dilley said. “I know how much this means to him.’’

While Mr Dilley needs to stay on the Central Coast to work and look after the rest of the family, Mrs Dilley is hopeful of making the trip with her son and Mehmet.

The Dilleys are hopeful of support from individuals and Central Coast businesses. A family friend has also set up a fundraising website.

Details: or

Makani Yerg, 12, participates with other boys in the master class on modern dance on the VMA stage in Providence (photo by Mary Murphy) 2014

By Barbra Polichetti
The Providence Journal
February 9, 2014

[Providence, Rhode Island, USA] – In the darkened interior of the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, the blocks inside the toes of deceptively soft-looking ballet slippers made a repetitive thudding noise on the stage.

Over and over again, young dancers lifted willowy arms and raised themselves en pointe under the watchful eye of Charles Askegard, a former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet. The Sunday afternoon workshop was one of several that ended a weekend of ballet competition and dance classes as Youth America Grand Prix held its regional semifinals in Rhode Island.

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The Youth America Grand Prix is considered the largest student ballet scholarship competition in the world, awarding more than $250,000 a year in scholarships that send young dancers to leading schools and dance companies to continue their training.

Makani Yerg, 12, of Rockville, Md., participates in the master class in modern dance (photo by Mary Murphy) 2014About 350 dancers, ages 9 to 19, from throughout the Northeast showed up for the weekend event in Providence, which selected competitors to continue on to the finals in New York in April. Other regional semifinal events are being held across the country as well as in other countries, including Mexico, Japan and Belgium.

“This is just a great opportunity,” said Maureen Reed, of Easton, Pa., as she waited with her husband to watch their daughter, Colleen, take part in Askegard’s workshop. They were also waiting for the afternoon’s awards ceremony, which would tell them if Colleen, 18, would be competing in New York.

For the Reed family, it was a weekend of possibilities, and it was the same for Katya Strelnikova, artistic director of a small ballet company in New Jersey. A former soloist with the Moscow Ballet, Strelnikova said that Grand Prix competition is a place where dreams come true for some young dancers. And it also gives them wonderful performance experience and a chance to train with masters.

A dancer since the age of 5, Strelnikova, who was born in Russia, said she told her students to enjoy their competition performances and then pay attention to every detail of the workshops. “I said don’t worry about standing out in class,” she said. “I told them to be like a sponge.”

Strelnikova is artistic director of the Ballet Classique dance company, which is affiliated with a dance school in Middletown, N.J. She said that only a special few will find their way into the spotlight in the disciplined, competitive world of ballet. “They are going to have to reach,” she said, recalling her schooling in Russia. “They are going to have to have a certain talent … and they are going to have to work really hard.”

She said that her students had a great experience in Providence, and that being on the stage of Veterans Auditorium had given the young dancers a taste of performing like professionals.

And although Strelnikova was seated more than a dozen rows back from the stage, it didn’t mean she could relax. “Ballet is a passion,” Strelnikova said. “And sometimes, watching your dancers you find that you are squeezing your own body and toes — you want to help them that much.”

© 2014 The Providence Journal Co

By Michele Angermiller
The Times of Trenton
February 06, 2014

Max Azaro, 14, practices at the Princeton Dance and Theater (photo by Martin Griff) 2014[West Windsor, New Jersey, USA] – When he was just a little boy, Max Azaro’s mother noticed that he had rhythm.

“My mom told me I used to watch Broadway show “Cats” on DVD and do the dances, and she thought I should take a dance class,” he said. “I don’t think I realized how much I danced around the house.”

Until he was 10, Max took gymnastics classes, which gave him strength and coordination that helped with dance classes. However, boys don’t usually go for dance, and she wanted to make sure Max would enjoy it.

Princeton Dance and Theater Studio was offering a free trial class, so Max agreed to give it a try. He loved it, he said. “When I left studio, I decided I wanted to do it forever,” he said.

Read the entire story:

© 2013 New Jersey On-Line LLC

Related Article: Student Spotlight: Max Azaro

By Matthew J. Palm,
The Orlando Sentinel
January 8, 2014

Orlando Ballet School student Austen Acevedo (Orlando Sentinel archive )[Orlando, Florida, USA] – Despite a tumultuous year for the Orlando Ballet School, several students were honored at the Youth American Grand Prix semifinal competition this month in Tampa. Among the top finishers were Austen Acevedo, who won the Junior Grand Prix, the highest award in his age group; and Blake Kessler, who took first place for both classical and contemporary dance in the senior men category.

The dancers will advance to the finals in New York in April.

The Youth America Grand Prix, founded in 1999, is the world’s largest international ballet competition that awards full scholarships and job contracts to dancers from age 9 to 19. In 2012, Kessler won the national Junior Grand Prix award.

In addition to the students’ honors, Outstanding Teacher awards were given to school director Deirdre Miles Burger and longtime instructor Olivier Muñoz. “I am very proud of the school’s achievement particularly in light of the adversity we have faced this year,” Burger said. “All of our students performed very well and were well prepared. I am extremely thankful for the hard work of the senior faculty that helped prepare the students.”

Orlando Ballet School’s main location was forced to close in August after mold was discovered in the building, a former power plant owned by Orange Utility Commission. Some classes were cancelled; others were rescheduled or moved to other locations. The ballet has since rented warehouse space near Loch Haven Park and in mid-December converted the facility into a new school.

Other top student winners in Tampa included:

• Nicole Davis: First place, senior women, classical

• Itzel Hernandez: First place, senior women, contemporary, and third place, senior women, classical

• Lauren Harding and Connor Ladley-Fredeen: First place and third place in pas de deux for contemporary and classical, respectively

• Ryland Acree III: Third place, senior men, classical.

In addition, “Red Light,” choreographed by Orlando Ballet artistic director Robert Hill, was awarded second place in the ensembles category.

Copyright 2014 Orlando Sentinel

Aran  Bell began his training at age  four in Bremerton, WA. with Michiko Black, continued training at Central  Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, and in 2009 began studying with Denys Ganio in Rome,  Italy.  He has also attended the Royal Ballet School, and American Ballet  Theatre summer programs.  Aran was the winner of the Hope Award at the  Youth America Grand Prix Finals in 2009 and 2010. In 2010, he was also the  Grand Prix winner of the Milan International Ballet Competition. Most recently,  he was awarded the Junior Grand Prix at the 2011 YAGP Finals, and the gold  medal at the Rieti (Italy) International ballet competition. Aran has performed  in numerous galas in Italy, France, Germany, England, Austria, Poland, Romania,  and several U.S. cities.

Biography from Indianapolis City Ballet

Related Article: Aran Bell, the boy wonder of the Carreño Dance Festival

Boys and Ballet YouTube Channel

By Sydney Maynard
Roseville Press Tribune
May 19, 2012

The Youth America Grand Prix is the largest student ballet competition in the world and this year a Roseville resident danced his way to the top. Luke Westerman, 11, competed with more than 5,000 dancers in the semi-final round, made it to the top 300 for the finals and came home with the gold.

Westerman has been dancing for four years and is a student of the Northern California Dance Conservatory in Roseville. This was his first competition and he took the highest prize in the men’s pre-competitive age division, which featured dancers from 9 to 11 years old.

During his one-week stay in New York City, Westerman prepared for the competition that was held on April 26 at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center.

His mother and father traveled with him and during downtime the family visited the Statue of Liberty, the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

1. How did you get interested in ballet?
My dad worked at Macy’s and one of the associates that worked there told him about the Sacramento ballet.  He took me to audition to see if I could get into the Nutcracker and I got in as a cook. That was five years ago. (Since then I’ve been) a baby bunny, a party boy (and) last year I was Fritz. I saw the other company members doing amazing tricks (and) I wanted to try out a ballet class, so I did and I liked it.

2. How did you hear about the Youth America Grand Prix?
My teacher (Theodore Constant) took me to some private lessons to test me on some tricks and how many pirouettes I could do (to decide) if he was going to train me for the competition.

3. Are you proud of yourself for going so far?
Yes. I worked really hard for it and I’m happy with the results. I didn’t think I would get first place.

4. What are your plans now?
I hope I can compete next year with (Youth America Grand Prix) but this year I’m going to relocate to Houston so I can train there (with) Houston Ballet.

5. Are you going to continue with ballet as a career?
Definitely. That is definitely (going to) be my career.

Copyright © 2012, Gold Country Media

West Orlando News
April 30, 2012

Related Article : First Position film reflects Orlando Ballet School students’ lives

The Orlando Ballet School, considered one of the greatest training academies in the world, had an extremely successful week at the Youth America Grand Prix International Student Ballet and Contemporary Dance competition in New York City, April 22-28. Orlando Ballet school student Blake Kessler was awarded first place in the Junior Grand Prix, the top award for all men and women age 12 to 14. Kessler and Briana Berrios won second place for Pas De Deux. The Children’s Trio from Vampire’s Ball placed in the Top 12 Ensembles.

“With young dancers from around the world all competing for the top prizes, the talent at this years Youth America Grand Prix was particularly high,” said school director Dierdrie Miles Burger. “I’m very proud of all of our students for performing as amazingly well as they did.”

The Youth America Grand Prix, founded in 1999, is the world’s largest ballet competition that awards full scholarships and job contracts to dancers age 9 to 19.

Many of the students that competed from the Orlando Ballet School in this year’s Youth America Grand Prix will also be perfoming in the Orlando Ballet’s Family Series performance of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM on Saturday, May 19 at 11 a.m. Tickets are $22 and $30.

All performances are at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Orlando Ballet box office at 407-426-1739 or online at

Copyright 2012 West Orlando News Online

by Michael Morain
DeMoine Register
May 4, 2012

Ballet Des Moines‘ 11-year-old Drew Minard of Clive recently competed in New York against dancers from more than 55 countries and was recognized as the best in his age division.

Not too shabby.

You may remember his name from the recent story about his successful efforts to found an anti-bullying club at Crossroads Park Elementary School. The move was inspired by the documentary “Bully” and his own encounters with teasing at school

But in the meantime, he won the so-called Hope Award at the annual Youth America Grand Prix, which hands out scholarships to some of the best dancing schools in the country.

“I knew Drew would win something because he is a very talented and natural entertainer but to win the Hope Award is an amazing achievement. We are all just delighted,” BDM artistic director Serkan Usta said in a press release. “Our community should be very proud of how well this young man represented his city.”

Minard has been dancing since he was 3 and, for the past year, has been coached by Usta in the School of Classical Ballet and Dance in West Des Moines.

Last month’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” featured three professional dancers (and Minard as a flying monkey), and the company is now in the process of developing a full professional lineup for an upcoming 26-week season. Under the direction of Usta and his wife, BDM ballet mistress Lori Grooters, the team will consist of dancers recruited from across the country.

Copyright © 2012

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