Southwest Virginia Ballet in Roanoke has an 8-year-old tradition of sending dancers to the Czech Republic every odd summer to compete in the New Prague Dance Festival.

The dance companies that participate come from all over the world — the 2019 festival saw performers on the National Theatre stage in Prague who hailed from Bangladesh, Belgium, China, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Panama, Poland, South Africa, Turkey and more. Other American dancers also competed, with the grand prize going to an ensemble from Brigham Young University.

Nonetheless, the 10 SVB dancers who went made a strong showing in the July 11 award ceremony, with a third place win in the classical dance category, and even more notably reclaiming the festival’s Grishko International Prize, a 1,000 euro award, worth more than $1,100.

Sponsored by Russia-based dance footwear and apparel manufacturer Grishko, the award is the equivalent of second place overall in the festival. SVB previously won the Grishko prize in 2013 and 2015.

Proud SVB artistic director and choreographer Pedro Szalay wrote that teachers and attendees at the festival were impressed with the professionalism of the Southwest Virginia troupe, who ranged in age from 15 to 18. The dancers took a class from Czech Academy of Performing Arts faculty member and ballet maestro Vaclav Janecek, who in the summer of 2018 visited Salem to teach at Star City School of Ballet, which Szalay co-owns. In February, Star City School completed a move to the Roanoke Industrial Center in southeast Roanoke.

Several young SVB dancers sent me journal entries describing their experiences in Prague. More than one described the effort of having to keep up with Szalay as he speedwalked through the city, and relief when he bought them ice cream or gelato.

“During this trip though, we have been lucky enough to experience extended happiness without any stress to overshadow the glee,” wrote Hidden Valley High School student Oriana Lukas. “While this was a competition, it had a very different vibe and atmosphere. Everyone was extremely nice and supportive and it was so cool to hear all the different languages.”

“This trip has been truly life changing and has brought us together through the walks to the studio, the trips to get ice cream, the late night trdelnik runs, and the early morning wake ups!” wrote North Cross School student Allison Coleman and Henry County homeschooled student Simone Ayers in a joint entry. Trdelnik, a Czech dessert cake made by rolling dough onto a rotating spit, was a hit with the troupe.

Blacksburg High School student Emerson Kniola was glad for the opportunity to study again with Janecek. “We all loved getting to see him again and really enjoyed our first class here in Prague,” she wrote. “The beautiful studio with big windows and mirrors most likely added to the excitement of the class. We were all in awe of the studio and couldn’t stop talking about how we felt like we were in some Russian ballet movie.”

Salem High School student Laura Anne Kay described seeing a modern dance performance the evening of the third full day in Prague. “The lighting, props, and scenery were absolutely incredible, as well as the dancing. One moment that stuck out to me was when they introduced paper airplanes on the stage. About halfway through the show, the dancers made paper airplanes and flew them all around the theater, matching the movement of them through their dance. They matched the lighting and props to make it look like there were hundreds of paper airplanes flying throughout the theater. It was beautiful!” she wrote.

Mike Allen writes the Arts & Extras column for The Roanoke Times. The beat he covers includes visual art, classical music, opera, theater, dance, literature, museums and other arts and cultural nonprofits, and things even more eclectic.

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