The dazzle of the USA International Ballet Competition goes far beyond the artistic athleticism of its brilliant young dancers, the thrill of their keen competition and the sparkle of tomorrow’s stars on the stage.
It’s woven into the cosmopolitan excitement of international visitors, the festive atmosphere of a two-week celebration of dance and the global spotlight it pulls towards the state.
The 12th USA IBC is June 10-24 in Jackson at Thalia Mara Hall, bringing more than 100 competitors from 17 countries to the metro area for two full weeks of world-class classical and contemporary ballet.
“It puts Mississippi in a good light, a very positive light, on the world stage — culturally and economically,” says USA IBC Executive Director Mona Nicholas. “What really sets us apart from the other big competitions around the world is our Southern hospitality. Nobody can deliver that as well as Mississippians.”
The USA IBC’s Ambassador program is unique for competitions rotating among Helsinki, Varna and Moscow. Volunteers paired with competitors form a front line of hospitality — welcome baskets to greet their arrival at Millsaps dorms, flowers at competition performances and more. “You’re there to be their cheering squad,” Nicholas says.
As the weeks count down to the competition, work continues in earnest at Thalia Mara Hall to spruce up the venue — lighting, fountains, landscaping, signage, cleaning, repainting and recarpeting where needed and dressing room upgrades.
The USA IBC harnesses people throughout the metro area, from both public and private sectors, as sponsors, spectators, supporters, security, directors and volunteers, to ensure the success it’s enjoyed since its start in 1979. The latest competition, held in 2018, had a total economic impact $12.5 million for the state of Mississippi.
Jennifer Beasley, artistic director of the Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet, sees an impact that’s both immediate and far-reaching. As with the Olympics and sports, the athleticism and artistry on display heats up interest in the art form. “We do see more students go and see it, and get excited about dance,” Beasley says. It also advances the nonprofit ballet company’s mission by fostering interest in classical ballet. “Although it’s only a two-week event every four years, the effect of the competition in our community is lasting, and it helps all of us in the dance community.”
This year, Beasley chairs the Tutu.com Fashion Show, a free and fun USA IBC-related event at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, June 22, at the Westin Hotel. The show is the finale of Project Tutu, a “Project Runway”-like design competition inviting amateur and professional tutu makers from around the world to come to Jackson and compete for prizes and a featured spot on the runway. For the audience, it’s a rare, up-close look at the creativity and handiwork that go into these gorgeous stage costumes, and a chance to vote online for “People’s Choice” and shop the scholarship silent auction (proceeds go to a worthy competitor).
C Spire, headquartered in Ridgeland and a USA IBC supporter since the early 2000s, is the title sponsor of this year’s Encore Gala, and also provides business office support. Privately owned by a family based in metro Jackson, “We have always been very committed to giving back to the community in many different ways,” said Jim Richmond, vice president of corporate communications at C Spire. “Arts has always been one way.”
Even with its growth into one of the larger technology companies based in the Southeast, that focus remains. “It’s a good fit for us,” Richmond says. “When you think about these dancers coming in from all over the world, it’s a great opportunity to showcase not just the metro Jackson area, but really the whole state.” He finds kinship with the dancers, too. “The dancers are very competitive. There are similarities there because we’re very competitive. We really focus on success, and focus on winning, and then in turn, giving back to the communities.”
Whit Rayner of Madison, vice president of the USA IBC board of directors, considers the metro area “a ballet town” with the proliferation of schools and companies — Ballet Magnificat!, Ballet Mississippi, Mississippi Metropolitan Ballet and USA IBC’s own CityDance program. “The USA IBC has been there to really serve as a draw to get students for all of those programs.”
First introduced to USA IBC as a new associate with Watkins Ludlam Winter and Stennis in the mid-1980s, his involvement deepened after his daughter Martha’s ballet lessons turned him into a “ballet dad.” With Jones Walker since the law firms merged in 2011, Rayner has been on the USA IBC’s board for about eight years. He’s been known to shake off work for a long lunch during the competition and catch an afternoon session before heading back to the office.
The USA IBC’s competitive nature has long been a draw in a region devoted to sports. “It really is a competition. I think that attracts people, even if they don’t know a lot about ballet, and heaven knows I fit into that category,” Rayner says. “I can’t tell you the difference between a plié and an arabesque,” he once told International Jury Chairman John Meehan, “but I know when somebody is good.” Meehan told him they’d probably agree on the best dancers 90 percent of the time.
“People are competing for exposure and money and notoriety and most importantly, jobs,” Rayner says. “When they’re doing that and something’s on the line and there’s a competition — I think as Southerners, we all rally around that.”
Opportunities abound to volunteer with this prestigious, exciting event. Visit www.usaibc.com/support/volunteers/ to explore options. It’s also time to fill seats for live performances, and marvel at the grace, beauty and jaw-dropping feats of these young dancers. Visit usaibc.com or call the box office, 601-973-9249, for tickets.