Dance is alive at the National Dance Institute. On the evening of Monday, October 15, 2016, NDI presented it's 15th Art Nest bringig together world-renowned dancers, teachers, and musicians with children from NYC public schools. "National Dance Institute started in 1975 when I started teaching dance in several elementary schools," Jacques remembers.
It's said that to be a performing artist, you have to give yourself to others. Jacque's generosity of spirit seeps through the walls at the NDI Center on 147th Street in Harlem, which opened just five years ago. Entering into the space and walking down the stairs into an Art Gallery of Jacque's personal works and gifts from visual artists is as welcoming as it gets.
Jacques warmly greeted me with the vigor and excitement of a child, and lit up when I told him one of my first ballet teachers was Melissa Hayden, one of the original Balanchine dancers and Jacques' dance partner. He immediately took me down the hall minutes before the performance to show off one of the dance studios dedicated to the rose herself. A portrait of Ms. Hayden hung from the wall while dancers Amar Ramasar and Preeti Vasudevan warmed up for the performance in the corner of the studio near the piano.
NDI began 40 years ago by legendary principal dancer Jacques d'Amboise. NDI provides over two million children with a completely free dance education. The first Art Nest series began in 2011 and continues every year allowing for communication and collaboration between performing artists of the highest caliber creating a performance opportunity to children at NDI. Not only are these children performing, they are developing critical life skills through the art of dance. The significance of live music with music direction by Jerome Korman is of the highest quality and offers a musical education to children as well.
The evening performance opened with remarks from Ellen Weinstein, NDI's Artistic Director who originally met Jacques while studying dance in college at SUNY Purchase. Weinstein has been with the organization for close to 30 years. "I want every child to have the highest level of arts education and you learn by doing, not by reading about it or seeing it on TV. Our children become the dancers. It changes how they see themselves," Weinstein told me.
Weinstein, who herself is a dancer and educator reminds us that "performance is embedded in everything we do in life. They (the children) love and support each other in a way that is real and genuine. You can see it when you come into NDI."
At Art Nest the children know they have to give a performance of true quality. The evening consisted of eight pieces sought out to educate and engage the audience.
Hoofer's Club, choreographed by Andrea Davey-Gislason and danced by the NDI celebration team was the first taste of well-trained performers. Aside from the children's crisp and clear tap sounds, it was obvious right from the beginning that NDI breeds performers. I watch a lot of youngster in classes and on stage and the biggest challenge is their stage presence.
In an age of insta distractions and snap attention spans, the middle-school aged dancers truly listened and connected to one another on stage. NDI reaches over 6600 children in New York City public schools per week, and around the world in places like New Mexico to Shanghai.
The NDI Sample Class with Mary Kennedy was a demonstration of some of the most superb teaching I've ever seen. Kennedy treated the children like professional dancers and therefore the children rose to the occasion. Kennedy moved clearly and quickly as she taught three movement phrases. In those moments the musicians, the dancers, and Kennedy connected as to not miss a beat. The children used phrases like "I'll try" and Jacques requested they dance the phrases "the fastest you can do." "If you goof we just keep going, no biggie," Kennedy assured the young dancers.
This type of thinking goes across good dance training and branches out into an approach for life. It is critical for these children to be supported in this way. It was clear the children also learned dance etiquette as they stayed behind the teacher, stood in lines, and most important, listened both to Kennedy and the musicians by counting and watching with intent focus. The framework for the evening proved the living and breathing mission of NDI, "Engaging children through the arts."
Etudes 1 and Etudes 2 were works brought to NDI, danced by classical ballet dancer Amar Ramasar and Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance, dancer, Preeti Vasudevan with music by Jerome Korman was a curious meeting of two distinct movement vocabularies. As Preeti describes it, it is " the story of two people brought together through dance and explore our story through each of our dance languages (Classical Ballet and Indian- Bharatanatyam)."
In January, Preeti and Amar began meeting to study one another's dance expertise. Together they choreographed a work combining classical ballet and Bharatanatyam gestures that reminded the audience that we're really not all that different. The storytelling element of dance is at the essence of both techniques. "By placing the simplicity in the beginning, we could then get complex in the choreography without creating confusion,." Preeti explained.
They broke down the gestures and counting techniques, transitioning into how they walk, toe, ball, heel for Amar and heel, ball. toe for Preeti, flexed feet versus stretched feet. The choreography was comprehensive with circular spatial patterns and port de bras. Etudes means "study" and Amar and Preeti allowed us to watch theirs in an incredibly reflective discovery of movement techniques.
In Etudes 2 Amar and Preeti spoke to the audience as to direct our eye in the choreography. They danced eight sentences through their differing gestures, beginning with the sentence "Clear the clouds and you will see the stars," and ending with the sentence, "I see you and my mind and heart are full." This adagio continued in a piece that told the same story from different dance languages. The composition was unwavering with humanity that brought forth a deep appreciation for their differences.
Single Petal of a Rose choreographed by Jacque d'Amboise's son Christopher d'Amboise and danced by two NDI students with music by Duke Ellington was incredibly compelling and the dancers were in middle school! Their use of space, sense of musicality, and connection with one another other was uncanny without any special kiddish tricks like tossing their legs into giant battements. There was nothing extra and the choreography was danced simply and thoughtfully.
Tony Yazbeck could be compared to a modern day Gene Kelly. Tony Yazbeck Presents... offered a song and dance that transformed the stage into a playground of Jazz music and tap dancing. "I had the structure of what I wanted to do walking into NDI, but then when I start putting my head together with these incredible musicians that Jerome Korman had on board with him... that was when my idea took an artistic and authentic shape," Tony said. With Dave Eggar on the cello, Tom Hubbard on the bass, and Rich Rosenweig percussion, Tony's inner child shone bright.
"I truly wish Broadway will keep allowing artists to remain open and collaborative to reach a higher level of awareness and connectivity for each other. NDI has a way of encouraging and engaging young people to use dance to come together as one human race. It embraces everyone no matter how unique they may be. The teachers are a powerful group of artists that have a way about connecting to each individual child and bringing out the best in who they are. Dance at NDI produces fantastic character among everyone who participates," Tony said.
Pas De Dix: Variation III, choreographed by George Balanchine with music by Alexander Glazounov is a not a commonly danced work. Jacques d'Amboise got on stage and, for the first time, taught Principal Dancer, Amar Ramasar, Variation III. What a rare sight to see. Both as principal dancers at the New York City Ballet being some 50 years apart in age, Jacque taught the choreography to Amar. Connecting the past to the present, Jacque taught Amar three repetitions and Amar repeated "Let's try it." Watching Amar dance the work learned on the spot in minutes, transcended time and space, unified through the music and movement.
Dance is one of the few art disciplines recorded by memory and more specifically muscle memory then passed down from generations. Choreography is then translated through the language of ballet vocabulary, the musical counts, and watching the teacher move. There is a very specific communication that takes place between dancer and teacher that is special to witness when learning a repertory work.
The finale was full of energy as the NDI celebration team covered the entire stage with vitality during Words with Wings, choreographed by Dufftin Garcia and Emily Meisner. The evening left me wondering how I can get involved. The love and joy from everyone at NDI was undeniable.
NDI is planning to implement a Teacher Training Institute with a codified pedagogy and training initiative for dance teachers in studios and schools. NDI creates advocates and educators who see value in what the program is going to do for children. "I want every child in the arts to have the highest level of arts education," says Artistic Director, Ellen Weinstein.
The next Art Nest will be February 13th, 2017 with Musical Director, Jerry Korman writing the music and new guest artists from NYCB and Broadway shows. Jacques chooses the guest artists for each Art Nest. He says he chooses, artists he admires that are not always in the field of dance. Some guests are in science, education, and the visual arts.
NDI looks to develop an endowment in the future to continue it's mission. Continued participants at NDI include: Chita Rivera, Patti LuPone, Michael Cerveris, and Alec Baldwin, Charlotte d'Amboise, and her husband, Terrence Mann.
"To dance from within is to be one with one's own soul. To cultivate this in children is one of the greatest gifts given by NDI," Preeti tells me. "NDI focuses on children and it is not just dance education but I feel dance education that is created for children by becoming children yourselves. This makes better future citizens nurtured by legends like Jacques who brings world cultures together to share a human spirit of joy."
To get involved or learn more about the National Dance Institute please visit : http://www.nationaldance.org/