The winners of this year’s Genée competition were crowned in Toronto, Canada on 29 August. The week-long 2019 ballet competition was held the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, drawing young talented dancers from around the globe. In the finals, Darrion Sellman (age 15, USA) and Mia Zanardo (age 15, Australia) were awarded gold medals, while Julian Wen-Sheng Gan (age 17, Malaysia) and Paloma Hendry-Hodsdon (age 17, Australia) took silver medals. (Julian Wen-Sheng Gan also received the Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award.) A bronze medal went to Jessica Templeton (age 16, UK), and the Choreographic Award for best ‘Dancer’s Own’ variation was bestowed upon Ashton Parker (South Africa).

Read on to learn about the experiences of the Genée 2019 winners, Mia Zanardo, Darrion Sellman, Julian Wen-Sheng Gan and Paloma Hendry-Hodsdon.

Medallists at the Genée 2019 international ballet competition
Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

The Genée 2019 Medallists Interview

What three words would you use to describe your experience at The Genée International Ballet Competition 2019?

Mia Zanardo: Exciting, inspiring, fulfilling.

Darrion Sellman:  Challenging, supportive, organized.

Julian Wen-Sheng Gan: Unforgettable, unique, unbelievable.

Paloma Hendry-Hodsdon: Life-changing, surreal, incredible.

The entire competition sounds like an incredible experience, but can you tell us what placing at the Genée means to you, and how you felt when you were announced a medallist?

Mia: When they announced my number as the Gold medallist, I was in disbelief, then I was totally overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude. Placing at the Genée has been the highlight of my life thus far, it makes the all hard work worthwhile.

Darrion: Placing at the Genée, and especially receiving the gold medal, is an amazing honor. The Genée has existed for decades and is well-known in the ballet world… The competition was great and much older than myself; so this was truly a bit overwhelming. I later learned that I was the first American in over 20 years to receive a gold medal [and the first American male].

Julian: Placing at the Genée means a whole lot to me [especially] because I may be the first ever Malaysian to ever place. Personally, it means a lot to me because of the amount of struggle it took for me to get to this point… When Mr. Luke Ritner announced my number for the Silver Award, I was immediately hit with much joy. I couldn’t believe that I [had] placed at such a prestigious competition [and won] the Margot Fonteyn Audience Choice Award. [It was] an award that I didn’t expect to get in my wildest of dreams, in a place so far from home. The announcement of my number for the award made me so joyful because it meant that I captured the eyes and hearts of many of the audience. 

Paloma: Just to make it to the finals was incredible, and I felt so privileged. [Winning] the silver medal was unbelievable, and [it was] so special to win this for my country, Australia.

Dancer: Darrion Sellman
Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

How exciting! You all represented your countries well and managed to place during your first year competing at the Genée.

Was the experience like how you imagined it to be – or were there some aspects that surprised you?

Mia: It was everything that I imagined plus so much more. The tutors were so inspiring and I loved meeting so many talented dancers from around the world. It was hard work but it was fun and I learnt so much. The studios at Canada’s National Ballet School were amazing and dancing at the Four Seasons Centre of Performing Arts is an experience I will treasure forever.

Darrion: I had been told that the Genée was quite different from other competitions I had encountered… [It] really didn’t feel like a competition because all the kids got to know one another and become friends.  We learned from each other and with each other.  I came to have great respect for each person [at this event]… It was a very friendly competition.

Julian: This is actually my first time competing at the Genée, but most of the events that occurred were [already] very familiar. This [is because] my brother, Jeremie Wen-Jian Gan (current dancer with the Singapore Dance Theatre), [thoroughly explained the events to me because he participated in the Genée 3 years ago in Sydney].

Paloma: No, I have never competed in the Genée before nor any major ballet competitions; the Genée was my first major ballet competition I have danced in.

Dancer: Paloma Hendry-Hodsdon
Photo credit: Belinda Strodder

Can you tell us what it was like to work with Giaconda Barbuto to learn and perform her newly choreographed, commissioned variations?

Mia: I loved working with Giaconda Barbuto, as we were all part of the choreographic process… We all had to improvise in different ways, which were then included in the piece, [so] the variation [included] a little piece of each of us. It was [also] extra special to perform, as well, because we danced with a cellist. This live music guided me through the movement, and I felt the dance was part of me.

Darrion: To work with Giaconda Barbuto was an incredible experience.  Her choreography is unique and challenging. What made the piece even more challenging was the fact that we had to learn this detailed choreography in such a short period of time, and then the day before we had to perform it, she made additional corrections. I enjoyed interpreting her choreography, and I hope that I was able to bring it to life as she envisioned it to be. I would love to work with her again someday

Julian: Once [we learned the dance], performing it was a whole different story. The dance gave me so much chills because the steps went so well with the live pianist and cellist. In addition to the live music, we had to perform to the enormous size of the audience of the Four Seasons Centre.

Paloma: It was a privilege to work with Giaconda Barbuto; her work was challenging but so special.  To dance her variation on the Four Seasons Stage with the solo cello and piano was something I will never forget. I had tears of joy as I came off stage. She is such an inspiring, wonderful lady.

Dancer: Mia Zanardo
Photo credit: Michael Slobodian

It sounds like collaborating with Ms. Giaconda Barbuto nudged you out of your comfort zones, in a good way.

Do you have any tips for dancers to learn and perfect new repertoire in a limited period of time? Or for competing in ballet, in general?

Mia: When learning new repertoire quickly, I always write notes or video myself in breaks, so I can watch back and practise later. I always focus on the harder parts, repeating them till I’m consistent… The most important thing is to never give up!

Darrion: I can offer some advice on competing… [Stop] looking at things as a competition. Look at things as though you are performing.  Because that is what is important. When you step onto a stage to perform, take a deep breath, do your best, and above all else – have fun.  

Julian: Each dancer has their own way of perfecting new repertoire… I always just go through [the choreography] with the actual music so I can feel the music and the steps at the same time… I just make sure I’m mentally prepared and ready to start the ballet. I also take deep breathes to relieve myself from stressing too much. 

Paloma: Listen to every word and correction and direction you are given and go over the steps as much as you can. Every time you run the dance, imagine you are performing this on stage and enjoy yourself.

Dancer: Julian Wen-Sheng Gan
Photo credit: Bruce Zinger

Thank you for sharing your process and insights.

Now that you have placed in the Genée, have you planned any special celebrations before jumping back into training?

Mia: I was fortunate to see the Niagara Falls and I celebrated with lunch at the top of the CN Tower overlooking Toronto before I left Canada. I was greeted at Sydney Airport by teachers and students with flowers and balloons which was a surprise and was extra special. I actually can’t wait to get back to class.

Darrion: As soon as I got back from Toronto, I went on a trip with some friends to a lake. I did not have much time to celebrate after returning home because I had to get ready and pack to go to Monaco. I will be continuing my dance training at the Princess Grace Academy.

Julian: There weren’t any special celebrations planned but I did spend some quality time with my mum and also some much needed sleep after such an intense week. Hurricane Dorian is also postponing my arrival back to training because the school that I’m currently training in is The HARID Conservatory in Florida.

Paloma: I was very fortunate to go to New York City for a short time; it is such an amazing city. I was lucky to see several Broadway shows, too.

This Royal Academy of Dance video takes us behind the scenes at the Genée International Ballet Competition 2019.

We think that a little bit of sightseeing and spending quality time with family sounds like the perfect way to celebrate and wind down from the ballet competition.

Before you go, is there anyone that you would like to publicly thank for helping you on your ballet journey?

Mia: I would like to thank Hilary Kaplan and Archibald Mackenzie at Alegria Dance Studios where I study full time, for their training and always challenging me to be better and preparing me for Genee, as well as Adrian Burnett who expertly created my Dancer’s Own variation with me. I would also like to thank all the other teachers over the years who have all contributed to my ballet journey including my first RAD ballet teachers – Wendy Gibbs and my mum Larissa Zanardo. My time at Genee was amazing and I thank everyone involved from the Royal Academy of Dance, the judges, the tutors, the house mistress, the chaperones, the volunteers, the boarding house and every competitor who together created an incredible learning experience that I will cherish forever.

Darrion:  I would love to publicly thank my parents for supporting my dream all of these years.  They sacrificed a lot to get me to this point.  Secondly, I would like to thank Ms. Andrea Paris-Guiterrez and Mr. José Carayol for their coaching over the last number of years.  I would also like to thank Ms. Leslie Shearer who initially put me on the path to ballet.  There are many other teachers and friends that have also supported me and guided me through this journey that it would probably take more space than I would have to name them all.  Therefore, I would just like to say thank you to all of the Los Angeles Ballet Academy teachers and students.

Julian: Firstly, there is my mum, who brought me into this dance world and also taught me since I was three. Secondly, there is my late father (who sadly passed away one month before the Genée) who has supported me since I was brought into this world. Thirdly, my brother for always being that role model and for setting the path for me to walk on. Fourthly, Mr. Janek Schergen for allowing me to use the wonderful costume of Singapore Dance Theatre. Lastly, the HARID Conservatory and its faculty for training and helping me.

Paloma: I would like to thank all my teachers over the years training me and my parents who have supported me since I was little – and particularly now, they have done everything and given up so much for my ballet dream

Your family, mentors and peers must be so proud of you. What lovely words to share with the people who continually support you.

We should all take the time to thank our dance cheerleaders! (Although I’ve never even entered a ballet competition, I wrote this post to thank my dance mom for her constant encouragement.)

Congratulations, again, to the gold, silver and bronze medallists at the final Genée competition – and we hope to see you in London during 2020 for the newly-named Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition at the Royal Opera House, as it coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Dance.

If these incredible young dancers inspired you to take up ballet, why not start at home with these free online ballet class videos? We’ve all got to start somewhere!

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