JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Young dancers from six continents were rehearsing at sites across Mississippi's capital city Friday, running through performances that they've been preparing for months or even years to display at the USA International Ballet Competition.
The 2014 competition runs from Saturday through June 29, with 92 competitors vying for medals, scholarships, cash and maybe a job offer from a ballet company.
Spanish and Russian echoed across studios at Belhaven University, one rehearsal site, as dancers finished one session, many sitting down to care for battered and occasionally bleeding feet.
"Four years ago, I had started working with my teacher and they started mentioning wanting to train someone for the IBC," said 17-year-old Katherine Barkman of Richboro, Pennsylvania. "I really wanted to aim at this because I knew training for it would help me grow so much physically and mentally."
Barkman became a home-schooled student about a year ago to accommodate her training schedule of six hours a day. One bonus? She's learned Russian after she asked her coach, Nadia Pavlenko, to only speak that language to her.
"The most brutal part was the whole year, getting up and doing the training every day," Barkman said.
Manu Navarro, a 25-year-old from Panama, had applied before but wasn't accepted until now. A visiting ballerina with the National Ballet of Cuba, she'll dance as a pair with Cuban partner Gian Carlo Perez.
"It's kind of scary, but I feel ready," Navarro said. "The time before, I don't think I would have been ready."
Navarro said she's trying not to overthink her performance.
"I just want to get on the stage and just dance," she said. "The rehearsal part is over."
For Jackson, it's a chance to show off the renovated auditorium hosting the competition. It's named for Thalia Mara, the dance director who moved to the city in 1975 and brought the first competition to Jackson in 1979. Dancer and choreographer Robert Joffrey headed the international panel of jurors that year, helping establish the competition's credibility.
This year, jury is being led by Edward Villella, an acclaimed dancer under George Balanchine in the New York City Ballet who went on to found and direct the Miami City Ballet.
IBC Director Sue Lobrano says the competition brought $10.2 million to the city in 2010, when more than 27,000 tickets were sold.
One new wrinkle this year is that in the contemporary round of the competition, dancers are being asked to perform specific works by choreographers Trey McIntyre and Matthew Neenan. Those two men will lead coaching sessions before the competition.
Both Barkman and Navarro said one of their major goals is to catch the eye of ballet companies scouting for new dancers. Lobrano said making those connections is a big part of the IBC.
"I think the major prize for that dancer is to go home with a contract," she said.