Maria Sascha Khan

Maria Sascha Khan, of Troy and Bozeman, who's now a principal dancer with the Ekaterinburg Opera and Ballet Theatre in Russia, will help jury an international dance competition next month in Missoula.

Provided by Charles Thompson

For the first time in its history, the Vienna International Ballet competition will be held in the United States.

What's more, the prestigious event is coming to Missoula from Jan. 11-16, bringing with it about 200 registered dancers.

Those include professional dancers who compete on the highest levels down to amateurs and students, coming from Russia, China, Cuba or small-town Montana.

One competitor has crossed from one category to another: Patric Palkens, a Lewistown native who's now a principal with the Cincinnati Ballet.

They'll be judged by an all-star jury that includes another Montana native: Maria Sascha Khan of Pray and Bozeman, who is now a principal dancer with the Ekaterinburg Opera and Ballet Theatre in Russia. Other members of the jury include faculty from the Juilliard School and the president of VIBE International.

The week, titled the Vienna International Ballet Experience, will feature competition rounds open to the public, panel discussions, a film festival, outreach in local schools, author readings and more.

"The theme of the week is the role of arts in human communication," said Charlene Campbell.

She's founder and director of the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Ballet Theatre, which has brought students and professionals to China and Europe. In Vienna last year, she began discussions about importing VIBE to Montana.

"They have never had a strong presence from the USA in the Viennese competition, so they asked me if I would consider hosting an event in the USA as a premiere," she said.

She and fellow organizers hope to democratize dance while showing off Missoula as a cultural and arts center.

In addition to the competitors themselves, organizers expect the events to attract tourists. Since it's a first-time event, they can only speculate on the numbers.

"We think that anywhere from a 1,000 to 2,000 people will come from out of town," said Kathy Weber-Bates, who's helping coordinate the festival.

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The week will feature multiple components. First up is the dance competition, featuring professionals, students and amateurs. They fall into three categories: classical, contemporary and an open category. The latter includes everything from hip-hop to traditional Irish and Native dance or tap.

The competitions will be held throughout the week in the University of Montana's Dennison Theatre, and all are free and open to the public.

"For many of the attendees, this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the caliber of dance competition," Weber-Bates said.

The only event that charges admission is the gala celebration performance on Saturday, Jan. 16, at the Wilma Theatre. Tickets are on sale now at thewilma.com. The afternoon includes appearances by the winners and awards for competitions including dance and student-involved events.

The second element is education and diplomacy. In collaboration with the Spark arts education program, the Vancouver Dance Company and dancer Ming Yan Cui will perform in Missoula County Public Schools for a day, and a "Hip-Hop and Conflict Resolution Through Dance" program will visit classes on another.

Other educational components include a collaborative conference with the Mansfield Center, "The Role of Arts in Global Diplomacy," which runs all day Friday, Jan. 15, on campus.

Regarding the panels, Campbell said the jurors' experiences lend themselves to broader discussions about life and the importance of art.

"They can talk to their lifetime in China during the Cultural Revolution or Russia during the Cold War – how the arts bridged the chasm where diplomacy failed," she said.

Organizers hope that the cross-cultural nature of the week counters much of the grim events occurring around the world.

"It is through cultural exchanges like VIBE USA that we can be part of a global community that wants people to connect and bridge those divides," Weber-Bates said.
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