The Prix de Lausanne attracts ballet students from East and West. Many seek the scholarships; the Russians prefer the Swiss francs. Report by Louise Levene. Photographs by Vanessa Winship
The Theatre de Beaulieu's stifling studios are rank with the stench of adrenalin as 144 underweight, muscle-bound teenagers compete for ballet's Prix de Lausanne, an annual event whose cash prizes and scholarships will give them a chance of a year of study with the best schools in the world. Their nervous chatter is constant but never loud; the lingua franca among the 31 nationalities is English, but if that fails them there are plenty of people on hand to translate - they're called the Swiss.

Dame Merle Park, partner of Nureyev, muse of Ashton, Tudor and MacMillan and now director of the Royal Ballet School, is happy to watch a hundred or so hopeful teenagers sweat, and has appeared regularly on the judging panel since 1982. You would think that the winnowing process would be a nightmare, in which the world's finest ballet students pirouetted past in a chain of perfection. Not a bit of it. One Finnish candidate this January was so poor that no one could explain how he had come to compete at this level. One theory was that he had mugged a dancer en route to Lausanne and stolen his ballet slippers. He was rumbled during the preliminary round, when the judges watch the dancers take class. Dame Merle felt they had to be firm. "You have to say no sometimes, otherwise they would hurt themselves." While the fumbling Finn was on his way back to Helsinki, a Russian entrant who had broken his arm on the way to Switzerland was having the bone set and neatly bound for dancing in a powder-pink bandage. He still managed to take third prize. Not a scholarship: Russians are happy with their own schooling - they want nice, hard Swiss francs to take home. Most prizes were won by male candidates, though they make up only a third of the entry. "The standard of the boys was better than the girls, but that's been so for the past few years," admits Dame Merle.

For the second year running, no gold medal was awarded. Why not? What does it take to be a gold medallist? Dame Merle flounders somewhat. "Good physique - real coordination - musicality." Although the judges are wary of anyone who looks too professional (the professionals have their own competitions), the magic ingredient would seem to be something as banal as "star quality". "A dancer who goes `Wow! Here is a performer,'" says Dame Merle. She doesn't see signs of a general decline. "There are still some wonderful teachers about."

Derek Deane, artistic director of the English National Ballet and scourge of the ballet teaching world, is not so sure. Deane made (or arranged for) headlines when he held auditions for his company a few years ago and failed to find a single British dancer of a sufficiently high standard. The Royal Ballet School may still produce high quality graduates, but they tend to be creamed off by the two parent companies, the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Deane's ENB has had to look further afield. He tends to regard the international competitions as a vast ballet supermarket where artistic directors can shop for new talent. Although "English" by name, his company is notoriously international by nature: only half of his dancers are British, and only one of his principals. He has little time for the smaller ballet schools. "The standard of training in this country is appalling, the whole method of training is outdated. Of course we're looking for English dancers, but if the talent's not there..."

Merle Park tends to keep her school's talent to herself, and is not particularly fussed about entering her boys and girls at Lausanne. In her view, Royal Ballet students have little to gain but prestige from the trials of competition. A low British entry has meant that there have been no winners for us at Lausanne in the last five years, although the Royal Ballet has nurtured dancers such as Darcey Bussell, Adam Cooper, Christopher Weeldon and Tetsuya Kumakawa. Gold medallist Kumakawa, one of this year's judges, is one of the increasing number of Japanese dancers to be seen in the West.

Japan is now producing high quality dancers in almost industrial quantities. At least 30 per cent of this year's Lausanne entry was Japanese, a development that has not been to everyone's taste. Purists sneer at their extraordinary technical facility and grumble about their unsuitable physique, but their success is undeniable. Dame Merle is generous. "Some of them have not the best physique, but they are generally very polished." Derek Deane attempts to account for their over-achievement. "They have a completely different mentality to their work. I don't mean to robotise the Japanese, but they do have tremendous powers of concentration and they don't know fear. There is a rock-like element to them. They know that they're going to go out there and do well. They don't question."

Maybe not, but the fear of failure is none the less apparent in the anxious glances of many of the other young contestants at the Prix de Lausanne: fear of humiliation, fear that the considerable sums expended in shipping their disciplined little bodies from Nevada or Novosibirsk will have been wasted (a candidate's travelling expenses are reimbursed only if he or she makes it into the final 30).

But the pains and gains represented by the Prix de Lausanne may all be over in 12 months' time. Philippe Braunschweig, who has devoted the past 23 years to running the competition, will retire next year, and no successor has yet stepped forward. Unless someone does so fairly soon there may be no more sleepless nights for the needy ballet students of the world - and no more scholarships, either