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They Met Through a TDF Arts Education Program. Now They're Collaborating

By: Raven Snook
Date: Jun 07, 2024


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How the Wendy Wasserstein Project brought celebrated dancer-choreographer Aubrey Lynch II and up-and-comer Nasir Campbell together


Aubrey Lynch II vividly remembers being introduced to Nasir Campbell a decade ago because he realized they were kindred spirits. "Just like Nasir, when I was in high school, I was the quiet nerd in the back of the class," explains Lynch, a dancer, choreographer, educator and entrepreneur who performed with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and in the original cast of The Lion King on Broadway, and currently serves as the Dean of Students at American Ballet Theatre. As a longtime mentor for TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Project, a one-of-a-kind arts education program in which top theatre professionals share their time and expertise with NYC public high school students, Lynch had met many intelligent and talented adolescents over the years. But after chatting with Campbell for a few minutes at the 2015 Wendy Project celebration, Lynch felt they were "spiritual art brothers."

The brainchild of TDF and the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles, the Wendy Wasserstein Project (originally called Open Doors) began as an experiment in 1998. Wasserstein herself took eight high schoolers to six shows on Broadway and beyond to find out if theatre could captivate the hearts and minds of a new generation. As she listened to the teens passionately discuss what they'd seen during their post-performance pizza parties, she discovered the answer was a resounding yes. Since then, the Wendy Project has grown exponentially and even won a special Tony Honor.

Campbell was a dance major at the Dr. Susan S. McKinney Secondary School of the Arts in Brooklyn when he participated in the Wendy Project his senior year with writer-director James Lapine as his mentor. Meanwhile, Lynch was serving as a Wendy Project mentor at Manhattan's Talent Unlimited High School. Because of their shared interest in dance, a TDF staffer decided to connect them at the year-end gathering. "We took a picture together and we've been in touch ever since," says Lynch. He may not have served as Campbell's Wendy Project mentor, but because of the program, Lynch became his life adviser.

Lithe and laconic, Campbell began dancing at age 3 at his father's Brooklyn church. As he grew up, his passion for the art form intensified. "I am a tall Black man, and I could do all these beautiful things with my body," Campbell says. "Dance helped me build confidence in myself. It was how I expressed myself and allowed me to see endless possibilities."

When Campbell met Lynch, he was about to start his BFA in dance at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. They kept in contact throughout his college years, with Lynch offering support and feedback on opportunities. Once Campbell returned to New York City, Lynch's guidance inspired the grad to found his own company, Maliek Dance Theater… but he didn't tell his mentor about it right away.

"I wasn't ready," Campbell admits with a laugh. "But Aubrey was the one who encouraged me to use my imagination and go beyond my limits. That's why I decided to start my company."

"I just didn't know about it for three years!" Lynch says with mock annoyance. "Then one day he sent me this flyer about one of their performances with a note saying, 'You don't have to come.' I was like, 'Of course I'm gonna come!' I would have loved to have been a part of that project from the beginning. But I was proud that he did it on his own. That's the best part of mentorship, when you give someone permission to go and be their authentic self without holding their hand. You point the way and get out of the way. And I was very impressed. He's got poetry and video and committed dancers with interesting movement."

Maliek Dance Theater is presenting the premiere of Whispers of the Garden on July 13 at Irondale in Brooklyn, and in November, Campbell will throw a celebration for the troupe's fifth anniversary. "We're all about nourishing artists through expression and dance and storytelling," says Campbell. His company also offers affordable classes, so the next generation can be invigorated by dance, just like Campbell and Lynch were as kids. "I aspire to be a source of inspiration and education, guiding individuals to discover their breakthrough moments," Campbell says. "It's about exposing the inner light that every one of us holds and finding the ways in which we might grow and transform."

Lynch loves that Campbell is paying it forward since he knows firsthand how transformative arts education can be. "I used to be the Dance Director at the Harlem School of the Arts and my very first day on the job, I met a little girl and her mother," Lynch recalls. "The mother looked up at me and said, 'My daughter wants to dance,' and I flashed back to what dance had done for me, how it made me feel beautiful and powerful and that I belonged. I looked at this young girl and thought, this can help her. It wasn't about her becoming a dancer; it was about her having creative agency and being the best she could be. Today, she's an engineer on an aircraft carrier! I have story after story like this. We are not complete human beings without the arts. It's an opportunity for young people to imagine a world outside of their circumstances. And for some kids, that can be the difference between life and death."

Although Lynch and Campbell have never danced together (something they still hope to do one day), they are collaborating in a different way. Last month, Campbell earned his Master's Degree in Arts Administration from New York University, and Lynch has hired him to be the Executive Director of The Harlemettes. "It's a group I started when I was at the Harlem School of the Arts and I want to turn it into a professional dance company," Lynch explains. "I've been talking about this for years, but I'm doing so many other things, I can't do it on my own. I kept saying to Nasir, I need someone to come in and run it for me—hint, hint. It took a while, but he came back with a great proposal and even got a grant that will pay for his salary. I inspired his dance company in some sense, and now he's fueling mine. It's a beautiful circle."

And it's all thanks to TDF's Wendy Project, a program that Lynch says "sows the seeds of creativity and offers a foundation for the rest of your life. I've been a mentor for almost 15 years and that's why I keep coming back. It's a real privilege and a real responsibility. And Nasir is an example of what can happen if we let the creative arts lead the way."

Learn more about TDF's Wendy Wasserstein Project, or donate to support all our education initiatives.


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Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her on Facebook at @Raven.Snook. Follow TDF on Facebook at @TDFNYC.