Maya Smallwood was with her roommate at Canada’s National Ballet School when she heard the news: she won the Prix de Lausanne’s inaugural Young Creation Award. Sitting in their dorm room in Toronto, they were watching a livestream from Switzerland of the award ceremony for the international ballet competition for young dancers. Smallwood’s parents and sister, who live in St. Louis, Missouri, were on FaceTime.
At just 17 years old, Smallwood was the youngest of five finalists for the award, which recognizes new choreographic talent. She was also the only woman and only North American to make the top five.
“I went in knowing that I was really happy with what I created and that, no matter how far I went, being able to create a solo was an accomplishment in itself,” she says. “And so, when I heard my name, I didn’t fully register that that was my name. Then the tears just immediately started streaming out of me because I had been holding it in for months, and finally knowing that I reached my full accomplishment was such an unreal experience.”
A dual Canadian-American citizen, Smallwood first came to Canada’s National Ballet School at age 10 for its summer school program. She was accepted to attend the professional ballet-academic program beginning in Grade 7, and she’s been a full-time student of the school ever since. Currently enrolled in Grade 12, she’s set to graduate this spring.
“I’ve really grown up here, at this school,” she says. “It feels like a second home to me.”
The artistic director and CEO of the school, Mavis Staines, who calls Smallwood “multi-talented and deeply thoughtful,” tapped the student to submit a choreography to the new Prix de Lausanne initiative after seeing her work in the school’s Stephen Godfrey Choreographic Workshop. For Smallwood, it was exciting to be able to participate safely in an international creative event after so many other opportunities had been postponed due to the pandemic.
She choreographed her three-minute contemporary piece, Unravel, to Euphoria by Vincent Isler. Her close friend and fellow student Ewan Hartman danced the work. Filmed at the school and submitted to the Prix de Lausanne via video, the choreography represents an internal struggle against self-imposed limitations.
“I always like to manifest psychological experiences that people have, and so for this particular solo, I really wanted to experiment with the mental barriers that we put on ourselves,” Smallwood explains. “I believe that we tend to self-constrain quite often. Those constraints never really go away, but you can push the limits, and you can push how much they actually affect you. Within the solo, you can see the dancer, Ewan, really getting into control, and then, within a split second, he slips into being affected by all of the elements around him. Eventually, at the end, he finds the stability to live with it.”
For Smallwood, part of the joy of choreographing is the opportunity to collaborate with dancers like Hartman and to see how they interpret her ideas.
“I love seeing it go from point A to point B and beyond,” she says. “I think it’s so inspirational to see in their face the way their mind is working as they register what I’m saying and as they apply what I’m saying, especially seeing how each body interprets it differently because every dancer is different.”
Now that Smallwood has been named one of two winners of the Young Creation Award — alongside Samuel Winkler of the School of Hamburg Ballet John Neumeier — she’ll have the chance to coach some of the world’s most promising rising ballet performers. Competitors in the 2022 Prix de Lausanne will have the option to use Unravel as their contemporary variation for the event, and, COVID allowing, Smallwood will travel to Lausanne, Switzerland, to mentor the dancers who choose to perform her piece.
“I’m hoping to see a really diverse range of dancers that choose to do it,” she says. “I imagine myself on the stage working with them or in the studio getting to coach them, and it’s honestly one of my dreams, later on, after becoming a dancer. Getting to work with dancers is such an incredible experience at a professional level.”