This Columbia ballet company has taken on the world. And won

You can see the camaraderie in their faces.

The two dancers, ranked first and second going into the final round of the World Ballet Competition in Orlando, Fla., are flanking their instructor, waiting for final scores. The dancers are close — in scoring and as friends.

Zi Wang, on the left, has just completed his final competition performance, a selection from "Swan Lake," and has seen the judges’ results: 9.025

That makes a three-round average of a solid 9.0.

Koyo Yanagishima, on the right, is waiting for the scores on his performance from "Le Corsaire" (The Pirate).

The gentleman in the middle is the bond between the two — Radenko Pavlovich, owner and instructor of Columbia's Pavlovich Ballet School and artistic director of the Columbia Classical Ballet.

Pavlovich started the Pavlovich Ballet School in 1991 and, with his Columbia Classical Ballet Company, staged a production of "The Nutcracker" with professional dancers in 1996.

Ten years later, Pavlovich began training dancers for ballet competitions throughout the world. The dancers have been winning, earning Pavlovich an international reputation for developing top performers such as Wang and Yanagishima.

Pavlovich’s first professional trainee was Brooklyn Mack, from Elgin, who in 2006 won silver in the USA International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss. In 2012, Mack was the first African-American man to win a senior gold medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria, the oldest professional competition in the world.

Mack began his dance career at Pavlovich Ballet School at age 12. He wanted to try out for his school's football team and began ballet classes to improve his athleticism. Not long after, Mack received a scholarship to the Kirov Academy of Ballet, and apprenticed with the Joffrey Ballet before joining the American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company. He spent three seasons as a principal dancer with Orlando Ballet and currently is in his ninth season with The Washington Ballet.

Mack returns to Columbia when he can to participate in the annual LifeChance International Ballet gala. In 2015, Mack debuted in the role of Prince Siegfried in Washington Ballet’s “Swan Lake” with Misti Copeland, from American Ballet Theatre, in the double role of Odette/Odile. In 2016, he and Copeland were in town for a fundraising luncheon for both Columbia Classical Ballet and Columbia City Ballet.

Mack's success has played a role in the success of Pavlovich’s Ballet School and Columbia Classical Ballet.

“The dancers that come to Columbia to audition for the company say that Columbia Classical Ballet is so well-known — from China, Korea, they’re not joking — because the dancers are winning the medals," Pavlovich says.

“It all started with Brooklyn.”

After a few tense moments in June, the judges’ final score for Yanagishima is announced: 9.575. His three-round average is 9.2.

The dancer from Japan, who is a principal dancer with Columbia Classical Ballet, has won the 2018 international competition. Wang, from China, finished second.

This year, Columbia Classical Ballet’s troupe will feature five international medal winners.

In addition to Yanagishima, who also won gold at the Valentina Kozlova International Ballet Competition, and Wang, the other winners are:

• Clement Guillaume, soloist, from France, a gold medalist at VKIBC

• Jinsol Eum, principal, from South Korea, a gold medalist at VKIBC

• Mari Bell, soloist, from Canada, a silver medalist at VKIBC

It is unusual for a ballet company to be loaded with so many medal winners, says Pavlovich. With so much talent in the company, his challenge as artistic director is to produce ballets that showcase the strengths of the dancers.

At the beginning of each season, there is a natural rivalry between the medal winners with each dancer competing for the lead role. That is a wonderful thing, says Pavlovich, as long as it's a healthy competition.

As to how he chooses the dancer for each part, Pavlovich says that not every part is for every dancer. Some dancers are more technical, some exhibit more strength. The director knows within a few weeks of rehearsal who will dance which part.

The company will open the season at Columbia's Koger Center on October 19 with "Le Corsaire."

Debuting in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1849, it’s one of the oldest classical ballets, and one of the funniest. The ballet should be a showcase for the company and Pavlovich plans to have lead and secondary dancers alternate roles during the performance's run in Columbia and in Charleston, W.Va.

His approach to the classics — "The Nutcracker" and "Snow White" are also on the schedule — is to keep the production as close to the original as possible.

Pavlovich uses the Vaganova method of training, with dancers expected to master a certain technique — the position of a hand or foot, the turn of a head — before advancing to the next level. It is rigorous and focused.

“Dancers from different schools, I may have to retrain them,” he says. That process may take up to a year, but Pavlovich believes that a mastery of the basics is key to advancement.

He says he is more selective in who he decides to train and take to competitions. The process leading up to a competition may take more than a year, with hours a day in the studio working on detailed technique, so the work ethic must be there to train — as well as the desire to win.

“When you’re working with somebody, and when they are performing onstage, I’m more nervous now than when I was performing myself," he says. "Because it is you … it’s part of you, what you created. You’re putting out for people to see ... and they are judging this.”