Washington ballerina Amanda McKerrow, a 17-year-old with a smooth and lyrical style, tied for the first prize gold medal in the women's junior division at the fourth Moscow International Ballet Competition early today.
McKerrow, a member of the Washington Ballet for the past year who has dreamed since childhood of dancing at the fabled Bolshoi, was the only one of the 13 Americans who entered the competition to make it to the finals. Awakened in her hotel room early this morning with news of her victory, she reacted with delight and astonishment. "I can't believe it!" McKerrow had gone back to her hotel room before the winners were announced. Mary Day, the artistic director for the Washington Ballet, who accompanied her to Moscow, called and said "Honey, we hit the jackpot!"
The competition is held every four years and is considered one of the two most prestigious in the world, along with the competition in Varna, Bulgaria. mIt is thought to be the equivalent of music's Tchaikovsky competition.
She shares her first prize with a Soviet ballerina, Natalia Arkhipova. The overall top prize for the entire competition, the junior and senior, men's and women's divisions, went to a young Soviet male dancer, Irek Mukhamedov.
McKerrow is pale and fragile looking, although the fragility is deceptive; behind it all, at odds with the giddiness more often found in someone her age, is an iron-willed discipline and an impressive store of self-confidence. She has known since she was 12 that she wanted to be a dancer. "I knew I wouldn't be happy doing anything else," she said in an interview earlier this year. "I'm basically kind of a shy person, but when I dance, I don't feel that way at all. I know some people have the kind of jobs that they start at 9 and leave behind them at 5, but I could never do that. I think about dancing all the time."
McKerrow, who lives with her parents in Rockville, Md., won her gold on the strength of flowing performances from passages from the Tchaikovsky classic, "Sleeping Beauty," and the more modern "Les Sylphides." She easily moved through the first round of competition doing the Aurora pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty" with her Washington Ballet Company partner, Simon Dow, 25, and stunned the Bolshoi audience last week with a flawless and inspired performance of the "Chopiniana" from "Les Sylphides." Her performance drew eight curtain calls from one of the world's most experienced and partisan audiences. Dow was awarded the prize for partnership.
But McKerrow's fortunes were in doubt to the very last moment early today when the 33-judge panel convened in the Beethoven Hall of the Bolshoi to announce its verdict on the competition, in which more than 150 dancers from 17 countries participated. McKerrow's final-round performance of the Bluebird pas de deux from the third act of "Sleeping Beauty" had been more subdued than her earlier performances.
This morning, she said of that appearance, her debut in the role, "I was really tired when I danced yesterday. I thought everything went well, but I was quite tired." That was why she had gone to bed instead of waiting up into today to learn the jury's verdict.
Before the judges had convened, the official Tass news agency described McKerrow's dancing as marked by "spirituality, lyricism, and musicality." She is the first American-trained ballerina in many years to place so high in a major international competition, according to Day, her coach and mentor. Day, founder of the Washington company, said she decided early last spring to bring McKerrow to the Moscow competition because she felt the dancer "had something very special to be seen."
But when the shared first prize and gold medal were announced, Day, who was sitting in the audience with note pad ready to record the judging, gasped, "Oh, my, the gold. I'm stunned. This is great. . . Very exciting," and she made for a telephone to wake up the winner.
The Washington Ballet ran up a hefty telephone bill with nervous calls to Moscow waiting for the word of McKerrow's victory.
"There was extreme anticipation and now just jubilation," Alton Miller, managing director of the Washington Ballet Company, said last night in Washington.
Cindy Bandle, the company's publicist, said the ballet has been in frequent telephone communication with Day.
"It's difficult to keep in touch with the time difference.We don't like to call later than midnight to make sure the kids and Mary get enough rest," Bandle said. "They can't call out from Moscow. It took us a long time to get through to them. Mary had to send us a telegram with her telephone number so we could call her. When we first tried to contact her, we called the Hotel Rossiya and they would answer 'Rossiya.' And we would ask, 'Do you speak English?' They would say 'Nyet' and hang up. Now we've got the number for Mary's hotel room."
McKerrow's brother, Daniel, 29, a production engineer for the American Red Cross audio-visual production center, said he had talked with his parents in Moscow. "I'm excited as hell, I can't believe it. I knew she was good, but a lot of other people must think so too," he said.
McKerrow's routine, which she had never publicly danced before, was chosen by Day "to display her lyrical style."
Day said the Russian response to McKerrow has included crowds gathering at the Bolshoi stage door pushing and handing her pictures or scraps of paper for her to autograph. "The reception has been fantastic," Day reported by phone to Washington.
McKerrow and her partner Dow, an Australian who has danced with the Washington company for two years and who is just returning to top form after a disc operation, were clearly among the favorites on Tuesday, a night of beguiling but unmistakably tense competition among some of the most accomplished young dancers of this young decade.
Costumed in sequined turguoise with feathered headdresses, the two moved past a slightly flawed lift at the end of the first sequence and then into alternating variations on the Bluebird theme and the final coda that brings the lighthearted passage to a delightful close.
There had been doubts that her performance would be rewarded. In the strained world of international competitions of any kind, the Soviets carry unique influence, whether in sports or culture. But this is never more true than in classical ballet, which reached spectacular levels of artistry under the czars, and under the Communists ballet has remained the focal point of Soviet international cultural activities. Despite the defections of Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Makarova, Godunov and others over the years -- and despite Western criticism that Soviet ballet is lacking in innovation -- Moscow concedes no ground to anyone on the excellence of its ballet.
The state cultural machine handpicks girls like McKerrow in childhood and if they have the talent, stamina and ambition, puts them on a grueling fast track to stardom, with lavishly equipped schools and studios that have left the visiting Americans gasping. This is the apparatus which produced six of the 10 junior division finalists.
Before the final round, Day remarked with wonder that each of the Soviet finalists already had passed two major competitions en route to the Moscow showdown -- a far cry from the successful single audition at short notice by McKerrow and Dow last February that sent them here. The flavor of the Soviet apporach is reflected in this excerpt of a Tass news agency dispatch yesterday: "As most people expected, the most successful group was the entry from the U.S.S.R. . . . It is generally acknowledged that the quality of Soviet ballet is extremely high and the [Soviets] only gained entry to the competition after taking leading places in countrywide trials."
The jury of 33 judges includes 10 Soviets and about 10 others from East Bloc countries dominated by Moscow politically and economically. The U.S. team leader, Randolph Swartz, who saw his group of nine cut to one finalist, complained to the Associated Press Monday night that the judging was stacked in favor of the home team. "I don't think all 16 Soviets [in both the junior and senior groups] should have passed through," he said. "There were lots of other dancers -- not necessarily Americans -- who might well have been named to the finals."
But Robert Joffrey, director of the New York Joffrey Ballet and the sole U.S. jury member, said he was "satisfied with the decisions," in another AP interview. "The outcome was in line with my scoring."
And there is more to ponder when the subject of someone other than a Soviet ballerina winning the top prize at a Bolshoi competition comes up. It has to do with interpretation of art, always a delicate matter in the Soviet context. The Bolshoi conductor at Tuesday morning's final dress rehearsal made his position startlingly clear. According to several Russian-speaking Americans who were allowed to watch the closed session, as McKerrow began her dancing, he barked, "Eta ne nasha!" "That's not ours!") and commented that the Americans had done something unseemly to the Tchaikovsky fantasy with nonclassical choreography.
"He wants us to change our choreography," Day said, showing some distress at the enormity of the demand. "They dance it differently in America from the Soviet version. We dance what we know of the original Petipa," who was Tchaikovsky's choreogrpher.
And then there is the matter of difference between the Washington Ballet's version of the Bluebird's male variation, which Dow dances, and the Soviet version, which turned out at rehearsal to be only half as long. When this difference appeared during the two live orchestra rehearsals, Day said, the music was stopped while the Russians sent to their music library for the missing music to a full pas de deux. When they returned emptyhanded, the orchestra simply repeated the half-version they have, allowing Dow to practice a double-diagonal from stage left and right as he was trained to do.
But there was an air of disappointment among the trio that these troubles had surfaced with just seven hours to go to the final performance.
In the sports world, where artistic interpretation boils down to pre-game tactics to rattle the other side, they call it "psyching."
"An idea has occurred to me which I've been thinking about quite a lot," Day said with cryptic diplomacy.
McKerrow has said about competition that, "You get nervous, but you know you can't get nervous, you have to concentrate. You try not to think how impossible it is. Somehow, your body just keeps on moving -- you hear the counts and see the steps, even when you think you've forgotten."
For the single-minded sacrifice demanded from ballet, traditional school was among the first of things to go for McKerrow. She left Rockville High School after her sophomore year and, with the aid of an understanding guidance counselor, took correspondence courses from the University of Nebraska to complete her junior year. When senior year studies threatened to interfere, she opted to study for the exam that would qualify her for the Graduate Equivalency Degree to complete her education.
Looking at what she was sacrificing of her high school social life, McKerrow expressed little regret in an interview a few months ago. "I guess I'm giving up stuff like the weekend basketball game, but I don't feel like that's giving up a lot."
The award structure for the competition is complex, with an overall best for the whole compeition, which went to Mukhamedov, as well as an overall best for the junior division, men or women. This prize in McKerrow's division went to Soviet ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. The men's junior winner, Andris Liepa, is the son of one of the Bolshoi's premier male dancers, Marius Liepa. Ananiashvili, the overall junior division winner, and Andirs Liepa also drew from "Sleeping Beauty" for their final performance, dancing the ballet's major duet. Arkhipova, co-winner of gold with McKerrow, danced a fragment of Puni's ballet, "Esmerelda."
The senior women's first prize was shared by two Soviet dancers, and a Venezuelan took the senior men's first prize. The Soviet group dominated the rest of the prizes, taking the majority of them.
Two Canadian National Ballet of Toronto members, the team of Kimberly Glasco, 20, and Kevin Pugh, 21, were awarded silver medals in their division. Glasco is a native of Eugene, Ore., and Pugh, a native of Indianapolis, Ind.
McKerrow is one of 20 regular dancers and six apprentices who form the core of the Washington Ballet, which performs most frequently at Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University. In practice sessions at the central ballet school here last week, McKerrow showed intent self-possession as the competition narrowed down to nine junior finalists, in the age group 16-19. The senior division, dancers from 20 to 28, had 22 finalists.
McKerrow said before the final round that when, as a child, she had first heard of the Bolshoi, "It was the mecca," she said, and recalled that her first rehearsal on its great stage more than two weeks ago had been charged with special excitement.
Her parents, Alan and Constance McKerrow, who accompanied her here, recounted in earlier interviews how they spent seemingly endless hours driving their determined little daughter -- Amanda is "just about" 5-feet-4, weighs 92 pounds and is the youngest of four children -- from dance class to rehearsals to performances in the past decade.
Alan McKerrow, recently retired federal administrative officer at the National Institutes of Health, remembered how she had "Yanked us all over the country and now . . . here to the Bolshoi . . . remarkable."
McKerrow plans to continue with the Washington Ballet Company, under the tutelage of Day, although she is certain to receive some tempting offers from other companies on the strength of her success here.