Big Names and Ballet Slippers: Inside YAGP’s 25th Anniversary Gala

The mood in the theater was lively. And the dinner was divine.

Three people pose for a photo at a fancy gala
Emily Reifel, Rebecca Hessel Cohen and Candace Bushnell. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP) recently celebrated its 25th anniversary with a sold-out gala performance and black-tie dinner at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. The evening attracted an international crowd of balletomanes and dancers, as well as celebrities, fashion designers and prominent philanthropists.

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YAGP, founded in 1999 by former Bolshoi Ballet dancer Larissa Saveliev, has transformed the ballet and contemporary dance world by opening its doors to more students of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The organization hosts a prestigious international competition and travels the world to discover and support young dancers who don’t have financial or geographical access to elite institutions.

Over the past quarter century, $5 million has been awarded in student scholarships, with up to $500,000 awarded annually.

Roughly 450 YAGP alumni are now dancing with eighty professional companies around the world, including American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, Stuttgart Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, The Royal Ballet and Mariinsky Ballet. More than a hundred of these alumni are soloists and Principal Dancers. Those are some impressive numbers.

The gala performances

Earlier in the week, around 500 young dancers from all over the world came to New York to compete for prizes, scholarships and job offers in the YAGP Season Finals after beating out about 15,000 students at the YAGP semi-finals. The end-of-week gala performance, during which the finalists perform alongside some of the best professional dancers in the world, is definitely a highlight for performers and spectators alike.

The mood in the theater was lively. The stressful week was over, and the celebration had begun. All around me, there was a mix of athleisure and haute couture. One girl donned a gray hoodie with a dance school logo. Behind her, a woman adjusted a sparkling black fascinator, and, across the aisle, a man buttoned up a white sequined jacket. There was an abundance of intricate embroidery, of black and gold. And lots of buns.

A large group of dancers in ballet tutus perform on a blue-lit stage
‘Grand Défilé.’ LK STUDIO

The gala program opened with a banger: Grand Défilé, a YAGP traditional pièce d’occasion, choreographed by Carlos Dos Santos, Jr. set to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Hundreds—literally hundreds—of students in white filled the stage in packed lines and tight but intricate formations. The dance was as impressive as it was adorable, and there were audible “oohs” and “aahs” all around.

Following that, there was a pause for an entertaining video projection with an introduction from the great Misty Copeland (Principal, ABT) followed by congratulatory comments by Susan Jaffe (Artistic Director, ABT), Julie Kent (Co-AD, Houston Ballet), Natalia Makarova (Former Principal Dancer of ABT, Royal Ballet and Bolshoi Ballet) and Rob Schneider (self-proclaimed “ballet dad” who finds hairpins all over his house).

Three dancers wearing different colors perform on a dimly lit stage
‘More Than Nothing.’ LK STUDIO

There were two world premieres on the program. The first was the jazzy More Than Nothing by James Whiteside, danced by ABT’s Isabella Boylston, Catherine Hurlin and Jake Roxander (all YAGP alumni, including Whiteside), with live accompaniment by pianist Matthew Whitaker and costumes by Dennis Basso. The second was the lovely Dea, a duet choreographed by Maria Konrad with Alonzo King LINES Ballet’s Adji Cissoko and English National Ballet’s YAGP alumn Vsevolod Maievskyi, with music by Karen Lefrak and stunning red costumes by B Michael.

Two dancers in red perform on a dimly lit stage
‘Dea’ with Adji Cissoko and Vsevolod Maievskyi. LK STUDIO

Among the other big-name stars who graced the stage that night were Bianca Scudamore from Paris Opera Ballet, ABT’s Chloe Misseldine and Skylar Brandt, Jon Bond of Nederlands Dans Theater, English National Ballet’s Vsevolod Maievskyi and The Stuttgart Ballet’s Elisa Badenes—all YAGP alumni.

A moving addition to the program was another video projection (there were several, all well done) featuring early dance footage of some of today’s top dancers when they were YAGP competitors: among them ABT’s Calvin Royal IIIChristine Shevchenko and Cory Stearns; Royal Ballet’s Cesar Corrales and Melissa Hamilton; Boston Ballet’s Michaela DePrince; The Stuttgart Ballet’s Mackenzie Brown and Gabriel Figueredo; New York City Ballet’s Sara Mearns, Taylor Stanley, Indiana Woodward and Emma Von Enck; Houston Ballet’s Tyler Donatelli; Dutch National Ballet’s Constantine Allen; and Philadelphia Ballet’s Sterling Baca.

But the highlight of the night was watching the next generation of dancers take the stage. Their performances—solos and ensemble pieces—were extraordinary and gave me great hope for our future.

A collage of beautifully decorated pointe shoes
Ballet slippers decorated by artists and fashion designers up for auction at the gala. Courtesy YAGP

The people and the party

The dinner that followed in the Promenade was elegant and joyful. Beautiful ballet slippers decorated by artists and fashion designers—all up for auction—lined the room. The striking pink tables were covered in cherry blossoms, a bright baby gem salad, charcuterie and springy crudites. As we nibbled, the man across from me kept getting interrupted by passersby offering shoulder pats and hugs. “Many of us haven’t seen each other since before the pandemic,” he told me. Patrons clinked glasses, kissed cheeks and requested live drawings from artist Deanna First, who illustrated the invitation, menu and dance floor installation. 

A man wearing black dips a woman in a green and blue print dress
Sergei Gordeev and Christine Shevchenko. Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

While we waited for the main dish, Saveliev and YAGP’s Creative Chair Marcella Hymowitz welcomed us from the balcony before making two exciting announcements.

The first was about the new Marcella Hymowitz Creative Fellowship, a generous gift from Marcella’s husband Gregg Hymowitz and the Hymowitz Family Foundation in recognition of her advocacy. The million-dollar endowment “will allow dancers from around the globe to create groundbreaking, innovative work that will push the art of dance into the future” for the next ten years, explained Kent who shared the news.

Then Sergey Gordeev, YAGP Director of External Affairs, announced that the U.S. Senate passed a resolution, submitted by Senators Chuck Schumer and Marsha Blackburn, that Youth America Grand Prix is now officially the national youth dance competition of the United States.

Two people show off art they made at a craft table
Samantha LiVigni and Deanna First. Jared Siskin

Notable attendees included Maria Christina Anzola, Brian Atwood, Hallie Batchelder, Irina Dvorovenko, Maxim Beloserkovsky, Ashley Bouder, Barbara Brandt, Candace Bushnell, Todd Cohen, Rachel Weisz and Daniel Craig, Ashlee Rose Hartley, Carolina Herrera, Judith M. Hoffman, Kamie Lightburn, Christina Lyon, Linda and Ed Morse, Juliano Nunes, Cynthia Rowley, Carlos Dos Santos, Gabe Stone Shayer and Rob Vecsler.

The food was delicious, the drinks refreshing, the conversations deep and easy. And then, of course, we danced.

Rebecca Hessel Cehoen and Libby Klein

Two blonde women look at decorated pointe shoes
Rebecca Hessel Cehoen and Libby Klein. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Barbara Brandt and Taylor Brandt

Two people pose for a photo at a fancy gala
Barbara Brandt and Taylor Brandt. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Jonathan Davis, Adam Stone, Jackie Stone and Courtney Davis

Four people, two men in suits and two woman in dresses, pose for a photo
Jonathan Davis, Adam Stone, Jackie Stone and Courtney Davis. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Erin Kawanishi and Luca Masala

Two people pose for a photo at a fancy gala
Erin Kawanishi and Luca Masala. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Priya Shukla and Michelle Ochs

Two women in purple silk dresses pose for a photo
Priya Shukla and Michelle Ochs. Jared Siskin

Peter Lyden, Carolina Herrera and Priya Shukla

A man and two women sitting at a finely laid table pose for a photo
Peter Lyden, Carolina Herrera and Priya Shukla. Jared Siskin

Paloma Chesky

A woman in a butterfly pattern dress poses for a photo in front of a large pink object
Paloma Chesky. Jared Siskin

Michelle Ochs, Samantha Pariente and Aly Gradone

Three women in dresses pose for a photograph
Michelle Ochs, Samantha Pariente and Aly Gradone. Jared Siskin

Marie Baramo and Benjamin Freemantle

A man wearing an old fashioned red tux poses with a woman with a yellow patterned dress
Marie Baramo and Benjamin Freemantle. Jared Siskin

Marcella Hymowitz, Virginia W Tomenson, Brent Neale, Lesley Vecsler and Lauren Muzinich

Five women in dresses in springy colors pose for a gala photo
Marcella Hymowitz, Virginia W Tomenson, Brent Neale, Lesley Vecsler and Lauren Muzinich. Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

Karine Plantadit

A woman in a distinctive net dress poses for a photo
Karine Plantadit. Jared Siskin

Irina Dvorovenko and Emma Beloserkovsky

Two women, one in black and one in white, stand back to back for a photo
Irina Dvorovenko and Emma Beloserkovsky. Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

Isabella Lafreniere and Abigail Simon

A woman in red poses for a photo next to a woman in white
Isabella Lafreniere and Abigail Simon. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Fer da Silva and Lizzie Asher

Two people pose for a photo at a fancy gala
Fer da Silva and Lizzie Asher. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Ceci Fenn, Christopher Fenn and Angela Gresham

Three people pose for a photo at a fancy gala
Ceci Fenn, Christopher Fenn and Angela Gresham. Jared Siskin

Ed Morse, Linda Morse, Gary Brandt, Barbara Brandt and Taylor Brandt

A group of people at a table pose for a photo at a fancy gala
Ed Morse, Linda Morse, Gary Brandt, Barbara Brandt and Taylor Brandt. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Cynthia Rowley, Rebecca Hessel Cohen and Libby Klein

Three people pose for a photo at a fancy gala
Cynthia Rowley, Rebecca Hessel Cohen and Libby Klein. Darian DiCianno/BFA.com

Freya Drohan and Sophie Sumner

A woman in a red dress poses with a woman in a white dress
Freya Drohan and Sophie Sumner. Kevin Czopek/BFA.com

Big Names and Ballet Slippers: Inside YAGP’s 25th Anniversary Gala