"We're looking for those little gems that might be out there."
This week, Ballet Tech's student dancers perform at the Joyce
890 Broadway is known for its abundance of performing arts organizations; its floors are mostly filled with studios of various sizes that host rehearsals and classes.
But the building is also home to a New York City public school. The sixth and seventh floors sport cheerful classrooms and bright, streamlined hallways where student essays about Jackie Robinson are on display. This is the New York City Public School for Dance – the academic component of Ballet Tech, a unique institution that offers free dance instruction to talented youngsters. The fourth-through-eighth-graders receive rigorous ballet training alongside their academic classes, so that math and Spanish might be followed with ballet, modern dance, and even gymnastics.
Recently, many of the pupils have been in rehearsal. From June 9-12, Ballet Tech brings 56 of its students to the Joyce Theater for its annual Kids Dance series, which features two programs of ballets choreographed for the performers' specific talents and personalities.
The entire enterprise was the brainchild of choreographer Eliot Feld, who in 1978 was inspired by a group of public school children he observed on the subway. Certainly, he sensed, there was untapped ballet talent waiting to be discovered among young people who might not have a chance to find their way to a dance class.
He launched The New Ballet School, as Ballet Tech was originally called, persuading the Board of Education to schedule auditions in public elementary schools around the city. Thousands responded, and those who displayed potential were offered free classes at Feld's company studios, with bus transportation provided.
Looking back on the project, Feld says, "The cooperation of the Department of Education in providing Ballet Tech access to children in elementary schools throughout the city is among the most significant elements in the growth of the school. Since there was no comparable model, the development of Ballet Tech as a recognized NYC academic school was both an innovation and an evolution."
These days 160 students attend. "It's really a wonderful combination of a public school education in a private school setting," says Christine Sarry, the Upper School's Director of Faculty. She was a leading dancer in Feld's company (and his longtime muse) until 1987, and she has taught at Ballet Tech since its inception.
"The thrust of it was always to find children who had a capacity and passion for dancing, and that hasn't changed," she says. "It's us going out and looking for those little gems that might be out there."
Ballet Tech students in class
Ballet Tech's relationship with its students continues when they go to high school. Starting in 2014, the company launched a program for them to attend the Professional Performing Arts School in midtown Manhattan. When classes there end in the early afternoon, they head to Ballet Tech for several hours of dance training. The high school program currently goes through tenth grade, with one new grade being added each year.
A late afternoon last week found Ballet Tech students scurrying up the stairs to the eighth floor for a rehearsal of Dotty Polkas, an exuberant, playful work for about two dozen sixth- to tenth-graders that makes witty use of colorful athletic balls of different sizes. It builds to a zany finale that seems poised to veer into chaos but instead proceeds to a precise, high-spirited climax.
Standing in front of the studio, Feld is demanding yet humorous as he urges his dancers to get the most out of the choreography. (Lithe and slim with cropped gray hair, even at 73 he's still identifiable as the guy who played Baby John in the film of West Side Story.)"No!" he shouts at one group of boys. "It's soporific. Perk up!" He guides a teenaged dancer through her solo with a blue ball as her "partner." "Talk to that sucker," he urges, gradually getting her to loosen up and be more expressive.
Several aspects of Ballet Tech's student body are distinctive – and impressive. There are an equal number of boys and girls, and at times the male contingent has even topped 50 percent. And the students represent the city in all its diversity: over 80 percent are from minority backgrounds.
The Kids Dance series, which began in the 1990s, has mainly been an outlet for Feld's own choreography, set to everything from from Klezmer music to Americana to Scandinavian folk melodies. But this year, Feld invited two others to create dances. Brian Brooks has choreographed Panorama, for 35 dancers, to a Michael Gordon Score. Julia Eichten, meanwhile, created Monsieur, a male solo set to Jacques Brel.
Asked about his decision to expand the Kids Dance repertory, Feld says, "Ballet Tech hopes to create a permanent library of dances – a repertoire designed for developing young dancers. Different choreographic voices will assist that development."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Ballet Tech. Go here to browse our current offers.
Susan Reiter frequently covers dance for TDF Stages.
Photos by Christopher Duggan. Top photo: a scene from Dotty Polkas.