New Ballet Ensemble & School (NBE) Residencies/Scholarships
The students streaming into New Ballet Ensemble & School (NBE) in midtown Memphis are creating a rainbow of diversity. And, that’s by design, notes Founder, CEO, and Artistic Director Katie Smythe. NBE’s mission is “to provide a professional standard of training, regardless of the ability to pay,” she asserts. To accomplish this goal, the school strategically located its state-of-the-art studio in a part of town that is accessible to residents of both lower- and higher-income neighborhoods. NBE attracts students from across the city by providing some of the finest and most innovative dance instruction in the area and by offering tuition assistance to ensure that training is available to all.
About 40 percent of the students in the school’s core instructional program are scholarship recipients. And, many of them are recruited through a feeder program that NBE runs in elementary schools in a high-poverty community known as Orange Mound. To help students from under-resourced areas succeed, NBE also provides tutoring and transportation services. In addition, to help meld a highly diverse student population, instructors and students have open dialogues about racial and economic differences. Last year, students created a dance piece on racial stereotyping that was “very emotional and very beautiful,” Smythe notes.
Whether they come into the program as budding ballerinas or aspiring urban dancers, all students receive a solid grounding in ballet—but with a multicultural twist. Students also explore African, flamenco, hip-hop, and modern dance styles throughout their studies. The pieces that they perform synthesize cultures and fuse genres. “We call it ballet for the 21st century,” Smythe explains, adding that by incorporating diverse genres into the curriculum and choreography, NBE “gives every child, every body type, every talent a place to flourish and feel important.”
In recent years, the school has begun to attract national recognition for the stunning, genre-crossing performances delivered by students and graduates. The Washington Post called NBE’s 2014 debut with the National Symphony Orchestra “simply dazzling.” NBE is also proud of graduate Charles “Lil’ Buck” Riley, known for his street-dance style called Memphis Jookin’. Riley has performed internationally with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and has toured with Madonna.
Harlem, by Katie Smythe, was set to a score of Ellington in a new genre called Memphis Jookin’, whose vocabulary is a dizzying mishmash of Cab Calloway, Alvin Ailey, and hip-hop. The nine dancers shimmied, levitated, and jolted their way through eye-popping solos and ensemble work, bringing a cheering crowd to its feet.Robert Battey excerpt from his review of NBE’s Kennedy Center debut in the National Symphony Orchestra’s New Moves: symphony + dance mini-festival, The Washington Post, May 11, 2014