At the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, a public high school in East Harlem, a ballet is being born. Every week during the school year, groups of students learn to be teenage Diaghilevs‹and Picassos and Karinskas, Aileys and Balanchines, not to mention dancers‹as they work together to produce an original dance piece. They choreograph the steps, design and make the sets and costumes, hang the lights, sell the tickets, make the posters, call the cues, and dance up a storm. The highpoints of the enterprise are performances at the school and at a somewhat grander venue, the Metropolitan Opera House.
It's all part of the JPMorgan Chase Make a Ballet at American Ballet Theatre. ABT's Make a Ballet program, which was established ten years ago, has offered a matchless hands-on learning experience to students in public high schools throughout the metropolitan region.
As the centerpiece of American Ballet Theatre's education and outreach initiatives, Make a Ballet doesn't just introduce students to the art of dance, it gives them keen insight into the craft, too. Make a Ballet goes way beyond the one-shot, bus-'em-in-for-a-matinee approach typical of many arts programs. The students work for several months in close partnership with teaching artists from ABT, focusing on one of four specialties. Students in the performance team conceive, choreograph, and dance in their own world-premiere piece. The administration team outlines budgets, prints programs, writes press releases, and‹in a very up-to-date strategy‹lands corporate sponsorships. The production students design and arrange the lighting, run all aspects of stage and front-of-house management, and work as stage crew. And the design team dreams up and then builds the scenery and costumes. The students explore career opportunities in the arts beyond the ones on stage.
More significantly than learning about what it takes to present a dance performance, Make a Ballet also bridges what can seem like far-flung worlds and demonstrates the rewards of responsibility and teamwork. Quantifying results can be difficult, but anyone who witnesses the enthusiasm of the students engaged in their tasks, or watches the shining eyes of dancers, backstage crew, and audience at a performance, realizes that Make a Ballet makes a difference.
When they joined Make a Ballet as teaching artists in 2000, award-winning costume and scenic designers Michael Bottari and Ronald Case were looking for an experience outside the realm of commercial theater‹they were looking, as the saying goes, to give back.
"Many schools no longer have strong arts programs, even ones that had been arts schools at one time," says Bottari. "The point of Make a Ballet is that you go into various schools to create an original ballet with the students‹and that was very enticing to us, to create something new with young people. The energy and creativity the kids have is amazing. We teach costume design for Make a Ballet, and the day we bring the sewing machine into class, they go wild. They're fascinated, like it's a brand-new car, and they can't wait to get to work."
To indicate that there's more to show business than meets the eye, Bottari and Case play rap videos in class. "We start out with rap, which is what they know," says Bottari, "and then we explain how every single thing they see in the video was designed. Every little shot was meticulously planned in advance, especially in a dance video. That's a revelation to them. We show them as much video of dance as possible. Many of the students have never been to a ballet. We talk about dance costumes, about what's right for background colors, about what works on a stage. We teach them backstage vocabulary‹at first they find that boring, but they appreciate what we're doing when they understand the basics and start throwing around backstage terms. We've had students tell us that they didn't know these careers exist, but that they see we make a living at it. They Google us, so they know everything we've done. And suddenly they are interested in design as a career. That's nice to hear."
Bottari and Case are used to making a big splash as a design team: their work on the 2006 Off-Broadway production of Fanny Hill was nominated for a Drama Desk Award, they won a 2003 Lucille Lortel Award, and they've outfitted performance artist and playwright Charles Busch in wittily outlandish couture. They've been a design team for more than 37 years, having designed sets and costumes for projects ranging from Broadway's State Fair to Off-Broadway shows and national tours. Most recently the duo created the sets and costumes for the first-ever production of Hairspray in South Africa.
Since Bottari and Case are in the middle of their own careers, they bring in examples of different dance costumes and discuss their current projects. "When we were working on Hairspray in South Africa, we showed them everything so they followed the staging firsthand and saw it evolve," Bottari says. "They take a real interest, though sometimes you wouldn't know it. I'm always amazed at how much they learn. You might hear nothing from one kid, and then two weeks later he or she asks, 'Hey, how was Man of La Mancha in Florida?'"
At one point the students generated the concepts for their dances, but, as Bottari explains, "everything was 'Britney Spears.' Now the program guides them to something a little bit balletic, and the themes of their pieces mirror the repertoire that ABT is performing. It's wonderful to see what they come up with. We have a salsa version of Romeo and Juliet. At a school with a high population of Asian students, we had an Asian version of Swan Lake, which was very pretty. We always try to customize to the school."
Make a Ballet began a decade ago under the aegis of Michael Kaiser, then Executive Director of ABT. "Our education program at that time was small, and what had been a full-time staff of four has grown to 11 or 12 people," says Dennis Walters, ABT's Director of Educational Outreach. "We also work with our wonderful teaching artists, all of whom are professionals in their respective fields. We generally spend five to six years with each Make a Ballet school, and then bring the program to another community."
Walters directed the students' administrative teams in Make a Ballet when he arrived at ABT in 2000. "Since every school we work with is 100 percent different, we tailor the program to fit," he says. "The students at the Science and Mathematics school don't have a lot of arts exposure‹their school focus is math and science, after all‹so our program offers outlets to kids who want opportunities to participate in the performing arts. Some students really like the business aspect of it, and Make a Ballet provides an outlet for them. The same with the production team: students who are interested in those areas can be really successful. We spin it differently at each school to see how the program could benefit them the best without compromising the core model."
As America's National Ballet Company, ABT's mission is to bring ballet to the widest possible audience and to expand its presence throughout the country through performances as well as educational outreach. The JPMorgan Chase Make a Ballet at American Ballet Theatre has recently expanded into elementary schools, though the focus with second- and third-graders is less conceptual than about dancing and drawing. An on-tour model of the program has also recently been launched, sending teaching artists on the road with ABT when the Company tours. Most recently, Make a Ballet On Tour spent two weeks in March working with four high schools in Chicago.
And sometimes the rewards appear unexpectedly. "Ron and I were leaving Newark's Arts High School one day," Bottari recalls, "walking over to the dollar bus that you ride to get back to the train to get back to New York. We heard a student yelling to us, 'Mr. Case, Mr. Bottari!' We stopped and asked him what was going on. He told us, 'I just want to tell you that because of your recommendation letter, I got accepted into the art school I wanted.' That was thrilling."
Robert Sandla writes frequently about the performing arts.