VOL. 131 | NO. 51 | Friday, March 11, 2016
Brandye Lee Training a New Generation of Diverse Dancers
By John Klyce Minervini
Memphis stands at the threshold of incredible possibility. In this series, we introduce innovative Memphians who are driving our city forward and forging its future success.
Brandye Lee is Memphis dance royalty. And like any true queen, she’s impossible to please.
“Jones, pull your tailbone down!” she screams. “No thumbs! And you have to get to fifth faster.”
In her 37 years, Lee has performed with some of the nation’s best dancers, including Dance Theatre of Harlem and Ailey II. She toured for three years with “The Lion King” and recently performed “The Dying Swan” for Misty Copeland, the rockstar principal ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre.
Tonight, she’s working with her toughest crowd yet: eighth-graders. As a recording of the Allegro Vivo movement of Georges Bizet’s “Symphony in C” crackles to life, the kids make graceful lunges across the floor of the studio. But Lee isn’t having any of it.
“These arms can’t look all broken up!” she exclaims, clapping vigorously. “You have to have air, air, air! You have to carve out the space!”
Such lessons will sound familiar to anyone who’s spent time in a classical ballet conservatory. But there’s something different about these kids: Almost all of them are black.
That’s because Lee teaches at Collage Dance Collective. Founded in New York, the nonprofit dance company relocated to Memphis in 2009 to take part in the city’s artistic renaissance and to increase access to classical ballet training for African-American children.
Seven years later, it’s working. Collage currently instructs about 200 kids in its conservatory and another 200 through partnerships with charter schools like Memphis College Prep and Klondike Preparatory Academy, a Gestalt charter school. They’ve succeeded in placing students in training programs at companies like the Washington Ballet and Houston Ballet.
Which is all the more impressive when you consider that some of these kids don’t have electricity at home. At Collage, which serves a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, 75 percent of families pay full tuition, while the other 25 percent receive merit-based scholarships.
“Some of my best dancers have experienced homelessness,” Lee affirms. “For some of these kids, we’re providing rides, meals, haircuts.”
Lee’s love affair with dance began early. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., she put on her first pair of ballet shoes at age 2 and was “en pointe” (dancing on the tips of her toes) by age 8.
“I learned to love myself through the art form,” Lee explains. “It’s how I know my life has value.”
From there, she soared through the ranks of young dancers in D.C. and around the country. After winning prestigious scholarships to Dance Theatre of Harlem and the Ecole Superieur de Danse de Cannes Rosella Hightower, she toured the country with Ailey II.
But her big break came in 2003, when she landed a job with the “The Lion King.” She spent the next three years on tour buses, dancing eight shows a week, including two per day on Saturday and Sunday. In more than 30 cities around the country, she performed as a lioness, a hyena and a gazelle.
“It taught me about community,” Lee observes. “As dancers, we dealt with everything from injuries to extreme stress to homesickness. We had to take care of each other.”
“Not to mention, my income went up by a factor of ten,” she adds with a smile.
Lee came to Memphis in September 2012 to become rehearsal director at Collage. Since then, she has performed in 15 shows per year, including compelling modern pieces like Kevin Iega Jeff’s “Wild is the Wind” and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s “Frankly Speaking.” She has also been instrumental in developing Dance on Broad, an eight-week dance festival, and RISE, a winter concert that features both company principals and conservatory students.
“Imagine a sea of black children who are standing up straight, who look exquisite, who believe in themselves,” Lee observes. “It’s more powerful than any social media image. It’s a gift that no one can take away from them.”
Back in the studio, Lee’s eighth-graders are practicing the assemblé, a jump in which the feet are brought together in mid-air and the dancer lands in fifth position. It’s a difficult move, but at last, the kids seem to get the hang of it. Lee lifts her chin and smiles.
“Cheeks to the light!” she says. “Did you see Micah? She was living in that assemblé.”
Brandye Lee is a New Memphis Fellow driving our city forward. Learn more at newmemphis.org.