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Homegrown dancers medal at 2019 Genée International Ballet Competition

Genée Finalists. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Genée Finalists. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

This August saw the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) host the Genée International Ballet Competition in Toronto, Canada, for the first time since 2008. Dancers aged 15-19 from all over the world competed for a coveted medal position in one of the most prestigious events on the international dance calendar. Australian talent shone once again on the world stage as homegrown dancers Mia Zanardo and Paloma Hendry-Hodson took away gold and silver medals respectively. Dance Informa caught up with Zanardo and Hendry-Hodson to chat about their success, their experience at the Genée and what’s up next for these two rising stars.

Darrion Sellman and Mia Zanardo. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Darrion Sellman and Mia Zanardo. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Both girls have danced from a young age; Hendry-Hodson began at age two at the Honeybrook School of Dancing in Sydney, and Zanardo at three at the Wendy Gibbs School of Ballet, where her mum is a teacher. Dance quickly became more than just a hobby. “I loved it so much, and the more ballet I did the more I enjoyed it,” says Zanardo. “I moved to the Alegria Dance Studio when I was around 12 to continue my ballet training, and I started full time at the age of 14. And I’m still doing it now!” 

Hendry-Hodson actually followed in her brother’s footsteps to train at The Australian Ballet School. “We moved to Melbourne for him to do ballet, and then I auditioned and started in the after school program at The Australian Ballet when I was eight,” she explains. “I joined the full time program when I was 12, so I was at ABS for seven years altogether. Eventually, I think my brother and I felt we needed a change, so we left. I went to the Jane Moore Academy of Ballet in Melbourne and just had a year of performing, doing a few comps, and completing my Intermediate and Advanced 1 RAD exams. Then I did a summer school at the Queensland Ballet Academy (QBA), and I was invited to stay. I was at QBA for one year last year, and although I was accepted into the graduating year, I couldn’t go back because my mum got breast cancer and I had to stay in Melbourne.” Although this was a difficult time for her family, she remains positive. “Everything happens for a reason,” she admits. “I wasn’t meant to do the Genée, I wasn’t meant to do my Advanced 2 exam, so it was all unplanned. But it’s amazing what happened in the end.”

Hendry-Hudson began training with Shirley Rogers to achieve her RAD Advanced 2 and to prepare for the Genée. “Without Shirley, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it,” she says. “It was all a bit unbelievable. This is the biggest ballet comp I’ve ever done, and I didn’t expect anything out of it. I spent four hours a day one-on-one coaching with Shirley, six days a week, rehearsing the variations, and then David Williams came in at the last minute and did my Dancer’s Own for me.” Each candidate entering the Genée competition must perform three solos, including a Dancer’s Own variation choreographed by him/herself or a teacher. Hendry-Hodson’s was called “Unearthed”. “The theory behind it was that I was the earth, and I was creating the earth, so it was very special to me,” she explains.

For Zanardo, it also felt like everything fell into place after her ballet teacher, Hilary Kaplan, suggested she enter the Genée awards. “After I did my Advanced 2 in June, I applied just to see,” says Zanardo, “and I got in! So from there, Adrian Burnett choreographed my Dancer’s Own with me, and Hilary and Archie trained my variation, which was the Summer Variation, and although it came up really quickly, it all came together in the end. Hilary is such an inspiring ballet teacher,” she says, “and working alongside Archibald McKenzie, his musicality and the training and the knowledge that I learned from both of them was just incredible.”

Paloma Hendry-Hodson (right). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Paloma Hendry-Hodson (right). Photo by Bruce Zinger.

The competition itself is often lauded for its supportive and welcoming atmosphere. Both Zanardo and Hendry-Hodson felt immediately at home, even thousands of miles from home. “Honestly, it didn’t feel like a competition at all,” notes Hendry-Hodson. “I know everyone says that, but it’s so true. I made so many friends, and all the coaches were so lovely and wanted to help you all of the way. They were so supportive. I wish I could relive it all again. I miss it so much!”

Zanardo feels the same. “I’d never been to Toronto before,” she notes, “and it was absolutely beautiful. During the last two days, I got to look at the city; we went to Niagara Falls and up the CN Tower, and it was so beautiful I want to go back! And I met a lot of new friends from all over the world. I became friends with South African dancers, English, American, Japanese; it was really nice meeting all these different girls and boys. I am still in touch with all of them, we still talk, and I know we’re going to remain friends for a long time.”

Of course, winning a medal at one of the world’s most recognised ballet competitions is always going to be a pinch-me moment. Hendry-Hodson remains humble about her achievement. “When I found out I was in the finals, I wasn’t expecting that at all, so when I got the silver medal, I actually couldn’t believe it,” she admits. “Honestly, getting to the finals was enough; I didn’t need a medal. It was so unbelievable, and it’s brought my confidence up a lot. I think the Genée has changed me as a person; it’s been so amazing.”

Zanardo is equally modest about her win. “I was beyond excited to make it through to the finals, and then when they called out my number as a gold medallist, I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness,” she recalls. “I was so honoured, and I was in so much disbelief that they called out my number. I would not trade the experience I had at the Genée for anything. It was amazing. The gold medal was just a bonus. It was just like the cherry on top.”

So what’s next for these two up-and-coming ballet stars? Hendry-Hodson is headed back to Toronto on tour. “I’m doing a six-week tour in Canada dancing with The Wiggles!” she says excitedly. “It’s amazing, everything is happening I guess! I’m still pinching myself. Then, when I get back to Australia, I’m continuing on to do the Australian tour, with all the Christmas shows and everything around Australia. After that, I’m hoping to get my Solo Seal so that I can finish all my RAD exams. And I would love to go to London to The Royal Ballet School; that’s a dream of mine.”

Genée Medallists and Judges. Photo by Michael Slobodian.
Genée Medallists and Judges. Photo by Michael Slobodian.

Zanardo is also planning to complete her RAD exams and travel the world. “I’m back in class at the moment, but I’m going to start preparing for my Solo Seal next year, and then I’m hoping to audition for an international school. I just want to dance for as long as possible. I would like to dance in a ballet company for sure, somewhere. Probably in Europe, or even Canada or the USA.”

With a Genée medal under their belt, there’s no doubt these two dancers are going places. With that said, we asked them if they had any advice for the aspiring dancers following in their footsteps. “Enjoy every single moment and take everything in,” says Hendry-Hodson. “During the finals, I didn’t have a single nerve in me. I didn’t want to put myself through that, I just wanted to go out and entertain the audience and have a good time on stage. And you have to love it. If you don’t love it, it’s too hard. Just enjoy yourself.” 

Zanardo also believes that loving what you’re doing is the key. “Just enjoy the whole experience, and never give up if you have any setbacks,” she suggests. “Just keep going. Don’t beat yourself up if something doesn’t go the way you want it to. Enjoy the whole journey, keep going and keep trying.”

At the end of the interview, both dancers had one final thing to add. “Just thank you to the RAD for the whole experience. The competition was incredible,” says Zanardo.

Hendry-Hodson agrees. “Thank you to the RAD for everything they did for me and all the candidates of the Genée,” she says. “It was the most amazing time I’ve ever had. So special.”

The RAD has announced that from 2020, the Genée International Ballet Competition will be renamed to celebrate its longest-serving president, Dame Margot Fonteyn. In keeping with the RAD’s centenary celebrations, the Margot Fonteyn International Ballet Competition will be hosted at the Royal Opera House in London, UK.

For more information on the competition, click here.

By Emily Newton-Smith of Dance Informa.

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