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VOL. 128 | NO. 84 | Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Arts Award

New Ballet Ensemble extends reach with grant

By Andy Meek

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The New Ballet Ensemble and School is a first-time recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, money the Midtown-based school is using to create and perform an original dance work.

The New Ballet Ensemble and School, seen here this spring performing at Playhouse on the Square, has been awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

(Photo Courtesy of Patricia Possel)

New Ballet has been awarded a $10,000 Challenge America Fast-Track grant from the NEA. The purpose of that grant category is to support small and mid-sized organizations for projects that extend the reach of the arts to people whose exposure to and experience with the arts is limited because of geography, ethnicity, economics or disability.

The dance work New Ballet is using the grant to create is based on Anansi the Spider, a fictional character who plays a prominent role in a series of popular West African folk tales. The work will draw from a blend of African, modern and ballet genres, and New Ballet is collaborating with three local partners for the work, which will premier June 16 at the Levitt Shell as part of the Levitt Shell Family Series.

The money funding that creation is going toward what New Ballet CEO and artistic director Katie Smythe says is the primary reason the group exists.

“The main reason we’re here,” Smythe said, “is to build community through excellence in the arts.”

That’s been its focus since 2001, when New Ballet was founded with a distinctive vision in the Memphis arts community. Its goal would be to serve as a bridge-building arts training organization, taking students from all walks of life and unifying them with a love of dance.

New Ballet offers an array of programs including a professional company, a school, public performances and community partnerships. Students are given the opportunity to perform in annual productions with the professional company.

“In the beginning, I envisioned the company as it exists now,” Smythe said. “We would train up dancers who are underserved in the beginning of their lives. We’d fast-track their professional education, and the complexion of the company would be completely diverse.

“When we started, we had our oldest students in the program, and they decided to help me stay and build the school, and then they went on to their lives elsewhere.”

Some of those students have gone on to prestigious careers. And the school they left behind after helping to build it continues to thrive.

A few weeks ago, New Ballet held its annual showcase called Springloaded at Playhouse on the Square and presented audiences with a variety of dance works.

It’s a prominent event for New Ballet, which Smythe said has been doing a spring performance annually around the same time each year since 2001. It’s called Springloaded because it’s loaded with variety, and it’s the kind of outlet where lots of ideas New Ballet has about the creative process come to fruition.

As the years pass, meanwhile, New Ballet’s profile seems to rise in prominence, both at home and beyond. In 2010, NBC’s “Today” show chose Smythe and the school as one of five recipients of its “Lend a Hand Today” series.

NBC weather anchor Al Roker broadcast for the “Today” show live from Memphis. New Ballet’s children performed for a television audience of millions, then cheered as a truck filled with donated items for the nonprofit organization was unloaded.

Smythe shared the story of New Ballet Ensemble in an interview with Roker.

“I didn’t realize that five years in, we’d have funders like the Women’s Foundation,” Smythe said, looking back at the organization’s history this month. “We changed peoples’ minds a little bit and convinced them art can change lives, can help children in poverty and elevate their positions in life. People started believing in us.”

She said the school never takes its eyes off its budget, and that there’s a close working relationship between Smythe and the school’s managing director.

What’s more, the school does $1 million worth of work a year on only $630,000 a year.

“Carrie (Pohlman Vaughan) comes from a nonprofit background and business background, so it’s really a case with us of the entrepreneur and the artist,” Smythe said, referring to the organization’s managing director. “I have a partner I work with very well, and I don’t get my feelings hurt when she questions how much something costs. We’re very frugal. We have excellent balance, and it’s one reason why even though New Ballet didn’t have an easy beginning, we have achieved the vision we set out with.”

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