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Emma Legarreta waits to dance as young ballet dancers audition for scholarships at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. Hundreds of ballet dancers from across the nation auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix regional semi-finals. The students attended workshops, competitions, and dance classes. This year, the regional semifinals will take place Jan. 11-13 at the University of Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — Ballet buns and tights will plié and jeté their way up to the campus of the University of Utah this weekend as hundreds of young ballet dancers compete for scholarships at the semifinals of the Youth America Grand Prix.

“We strive for excellence,” said Larissa Saveliev, founder of Youth America Grand Prix.

Over the past 20 years, Youth America Grand Prix — the world's largest network of dance — has provided scholarship auditions and performance and education opportunities and has connected students, teachers, schools, dance companies, dancers and audiences, according to yagp.org.

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Larissa Saveliev founded Youth America Grand Prix in 1999. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the program. The regional semifinals will take place Jan. 11-13 at the University of Utah.

As the daughter of two college professors, it's not a big surprise that Saveliev discovered in herself a passion for teaching young people. By combining her love of ballet and her affection for students, she eventually created the Youth America Grand Prix in 1999. This year marks the competitions' 20th anniversary season.

“It is a place where bunheads get together,” said Saveliev, who lives in New York, referencing the term of endearment associated with ballerinas.

Hundreds of young bunheads, ages 9-19, from the Salt Lake area will audition for the Youth America Grand Prix in Salt Lake City, with 21 other North American cities also hosting semifinals. Finalists will travel to New York City in April to compete for scholarships to top schools and companies around the world.

Saveliev danced with the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet for about six years before defecting to the United States in 1995. Her intense training in Moscow with one of the oldest and most famous dance companies in the world taught her the importance of striving for excellence.

Called the "Simon Cowell" of this ballet competition, Saveliev has seen her competition award young dancers more than $250,000 annually in scholarships, according to a news release. Youth America Grand Prix alumni have gone on to join American Ballet Theatre, Paris Opera Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, New York City Ballet and many other prestigious schools and companies.

Ballet West is one of those companies with Youth America Grand Prix alumni. Beckanne Sisk, principal dancer with Ballet West since 2015, competed in the program and was a New York City finalist from 2006-2010 according to balletwest.org. And Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West since 2007, has been active with Youth America Grand Prix since 2010, according to yagp.org.

The friendly relationship with Ballet West and Utah’s talented dancers has been important as Youth America Grand Prix semifinals have been held in Salt Lake City for the past few years.

“Salt Lake City is very cultural, it’s very educated, it’s very clean and people love art,” Saveliev said, adding that she thinks Ballet West is a fantastic company.

Between seven and 10 judges will be at the Salt Lake City competition. And while some young dancers may not yet be technically strong, Saveliev said judges will look for physique, coordination, musicality and potential.

Serenity Blee, Grand Junction, Colorado, has some fun warming up with her mother Theresa as young ballet dancers audition for scholarships at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016. Hundreds of ballet dancers from across the nation auditioned for the Youth America Grand Prix regional semi-finals. The students attended workshops, competitions, and dance classes. This year, the regional semifinals will take place Jan. 11-13 at the University of Utah.

Savelieve hopes that young talent can be discovered, cultivated and inspired at the semifinals in Utah.

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“I think the path to try to keep youngsters involved with the arts is very important,” Saveliev said. “Maybe some younger dancers will be inspired … and they’ll become actively involved in this beautiful art form.”

If you go …

What: Youth America Grand Prix 2019 Regional Semi-Finals

When: Jan. 11, noon-9:30 p.m.; Jan. 12, 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m; awards ceremony, 8:30-9:30 p.m.

Where: The Hayes Christensen Centre, 330 S. 1500 East, University of Utah; awards ceremony at Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle

How much: $10 for general, free for youths ages 21 and younger; tickets are available at the door and are good for the entire weekend

Web: yagp.org