Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Kids of New Mexico

Every Friday the Santa Fe newspaper, The New Mexican, publishes a culture magazine called Pasa Tiempo. It is to Santa Fe and the surrounding area what New York Magazine was when it was started by the Herald Tribune in the 1960’s.

In the Magazine is a listing of all the cultural events that will be happening throughout the coming week. Friday’s is the big arts night and there is always a plethora of events to choose from. Though there were three different events that interested us for one Friday evening we had already committed to a performance at the National Dance Institute, that is near and dear to our hearts. NDI as it is known is a project started by the New York City Ballet principal dancer Jacques D’Amboise in New York some 35 years ago. Later on, another New York City Ballet dancer, Catherine Oppenheimer, became an NDI teacher and when she decided to move out to Santa Fe, Jacques asked her whether she would be interested in doing for New Mexico what he had started in New York.

Catherine took it a step further and did not just start the project for one city but for the entire state. Of course, population-wise there is no comparison. Yet, 16 years after she started she has 6,000 students across the state. This is a program that takes student mostly from public schools and teaches them dance in school time slots. The effort this requires is incredible and some day I may write just about what is technically involved.

Dance is not just an art, it is a discipline. What the kids learn will be an asset if they stay in the arts or become scientists. NDI has shown statistically that reading and math scores for the kids improve enormously once they have participated in the program. It starts with just being on time because, as Jacques D’Amboise himself has said to the kids, the curtain is not going to wait on them.

Getting back to the main event, we saw the most promising students of the NDI School for Performing Arts, founded by Catherine to allow the most promising NDI students to move further into the disciplines of dance with an after-school program. Actually we went to a rehearsal first. We watched Jacques with a group of teenagers. He was setting on them a piece of choreography that he had created just for them. They were going to dance his premier performance. It was based on Igor Stravinsky’s “Apollo”, a ballet by Balanchine in which he had starred for many years. The kids had been prepped by Jacque’s assistant, Mary Kennedy who teaches at NDI, New York, so they knew the basic steps but Jacques and Mary had been in town for only two days at the time of the rehearsal that we watched and the kids knew their basic steps and positions. It was incredible to watch how quickly they learned. The kids spent the next week refining the raw beginnings that we saw then.

We saw the first of the run of three performances where the , the star of Jacque’s piece, 12 year old Isela Flores, flew through the air guided by her male handlers. It was truly lyrical. My wife, the former dancer, was so excited she went out after the performance to congratulate Isela and her mother, who told her in tears how much this meant to her as a single mother and her struggle to give her daughter whatever help she could with her artistic ambitions. (According to the NDI website. 74% of their students come from families that live below the poverty level.)

Though over the last 50 years I have seen a great deal of ballet and learned to enjoy it, I think that Broadway is still my first love. That night other students from the school performed a sizable chunk of “A Chorus Line” one of my favorite musicals. All the kids were wonderful and obviously they had been well cast as to their strengths. These young people caught the spirit perfectly. In fact, when we returned home later that evening I got out my old vinyl of the original Broadway cast, which we had seen some 35 years ago. I must say I retained the memory and enjoyment of what I had seen that evening and the record seemed something of a let down after seeing the dynamic live performance.

When the curtain came up on the piece one hears Zack (the director choreographer) calling together those auditioning for the chorus line. I thought that they had used a recording or an adult had done the first lines but no, it was15 year old Stewart Ottersberg who kept that voice and held the character perfectly for the entire 45 minute performance. In fact, I was somewhat taken aback when I spoke with him after the show and his normal voice was actually an octave higher!

For me, however, his sister who played Cassie, Gabby Ottersberg, who is only 14 years old was magical. When I had heard her in rehearsal we were seated practically on the stage and I saw her sing from behind. The number she was doing was “The Music and the Mirror” she is meant to sing directly to Zack, but when I was watching her first Zack was getting notes from the director so he was not paying attention, still Cassie brought me to tears. Needless to say, when I saw and heard the number from the audience it was even better and I again I began to cry.

Now, I will admit that I have a certain emotional attachment to the show but you know how a lousy performance can ruin something you love. Well this was quite the opposite.

That Jacques D’Amboise and the staff of NDI can bring these teenagers the discipline and art to totally entertain and grip an audience is quite a testament to the success of the program.