Visit New Ballet Ensemble & School’s studio in Midtown, and you’ll find dancers exploring hip-hop moves side-by-side with kids who polish ballet steps. It’s also a cradle of cultural bridge-building. Kids form friendships with peers they would never meet in their neighborhoods.
Develop a top-notch program, and word spreads. The school’s founder, Katie Smythe, recently flew to Washington, D.C., to receive the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, which recognizes the country’s best creative youth development programs. The school serves students from every corner of the city and various cultural backgrounds. New Ballet and 11 other awardees will receive a $10,000 grant and a year of capacity-building support from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
“I dreamed that my vision would have great impact, bringing together marginalized, at-risk children and privileged children,” says Smythe. “I dreamed it would ripple out, of building amazing dancers and getting the world’s attention.”
Smythe invited tenured dancer Brianna Brown to accompany her to the ceremony. She could have chosen any of her 300 students, but the 17-year-old has long thrived at the school. We featured Briana in our Can-Do Kid column, when she was 14 and already showing mature talent. Today she dances roles in many New Ballet productions and will rise to assistant teacher in the after-school program when she starts college next fall.
At the White House, the Immaculate Conception junior stood proudly with Smythe, who received the award from Michelle Obama.
“We were told to be brief and only say thank you and shake Mrs. Obama’s hand,” says Smythe. But the First Lady surprised them, taking time to give hugs and hand out compliments. “You look like a ballerina.” Obama said, smiling at the dancer.
And that’s an observation that brings satisfaction to Smythe. She says African-American ballerinas are freshening ballet’s image. “Brianna doesn’t think of herself as an African-American dancer — she thinks of herself as a dancer.”
At the studio, students get more than a classical ballet curriculum and lessons in African dance, hip hop,jookin', flamenco, and Chinese dance. The staff support students outside of class as well, creating a “family” of kids who live in Orange Mound as well as affluent neighborhoods.
“We’re kind of like Harry Potter’s school Hogwarts, a family with other creatives.”
Connect with the ensemble’s vision this weekend at Nut ReMix at Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. Performances are Nov. 21-23 . The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday ; 5:30 p.m. Saturday ; and 2:30 p.m. Sunday . Purchase tickets at ticketmaster.com or at Cannon Center box office. Nut ReMix is an innovative Nutcracker set on Beale Street and featuring alumni Charles “Lil Buck" Riley and Maxx Reed. “Lil Buck” is a Jookin' star, and Reed is fresh off of Spiderman: Turn off the Dark on Broadway. Brianna will dance several roles and perform a Spanish flamenco dance. Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Big Band perform alongside the dancers.