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Ilona Copen, 70, founder of N.Y. dance competition

Ilona Copen, shown at Trisha Brown Studios, was executive director of the New York International Ballet Competition. Ilona Copen, shown at Trisha Brown Studios, was executive director of the New York International Ballet Competition. (Sara Krulwich/New York Times/File 2003)
By Jack Anderson
New York Times / February 25, 2010

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NEW YORK - Ilona Copen, a founder of the New York International Ballet Competition and a champion of the exchange of ideas among dance companies around the world, died of cancer Saturday at her home in Manhattan.

She was 70.

Ms. Copen was born in Brooklyn. She studied dance at the Juilliard School and performed with small modern-dance companies directed by Myra Kinch, Shirley Broughton, Katherine Litz, and Jeff Duncan, among other choreographers.

Yet her ambition to be a modern dancer was soon eclipsed by a desire to promote dance as a global art.

In 1983, she and Igor Youskevitch, a distinguished premier danseur who had starred with both American Ballet Theater and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, established the New York International Ballet Competition, which held its first event the next year and has since become a biennial attraction.

Although there have long been worldwide ballet competitions, the New York event was unusual from the outset because of the way Ms. Copen and Youskevitch sought to make its young participants, between 17 and 24, feel like colleagues rather than rivals.

They also introduced an unusual system. Whereas at some competitions, participants may dance what they wish in whatever choreographic version they choose, the New York competition repertory is never announced until after the dancers have arrived in New York. Then they are taught the same three pas de deux, which they must perform in exactly the same versions, thereby allowing a panel of judges to appraise them without having to take into account any personal or choreographic idiosyncrasies.

Ms. Copen was the competition’s executive director and Youskevitch its artistic director until his death in 1994, after which Ms. Copen continued on as executive director. She retired in July.

The next artistic cause to which she devoted her energies was the World Dance Alliance, an international forum for the exchange of dance ideas founded in Hong Kong in 1990. Organized on the basis of regions, the Asia Pacific branch was the first to become active. An Americas division came into being in 1993, with Ms. Copen serving as chairwoman of its International Relations Committee.

Ms. Copen was president of the International Dance Committee of the International Theater Institute from 1995 to 2008; she organized the closing ceremony of its 30th World Congress in Tampico, Mexico, in 2004, and produced four celebrations of International Dance Day for UNESCO in Paris. She also served on the boards of several dance companies and schools.

Ms. Copen leaves her husband, James A. Goldstein; a daughter, Robin Goldstein Fontaine of Manhattan; a son, Seth Copen Goldstein of Pittsburgh; her mother, Frieda Copen Zucker of Manhattan; a brother, Mel Copen of Sedona, Ariz.; a sister, Gennah Copen of Amherst; and four grandchildren.