Meet Stephen Melendez, age 12, a precious kid teetering on the brink of adolescence. When he's not rooting for the Jets, solving math problems, or shepherding his younger sister to and from school, he's often practicing pirouettes. Lately it's paying off. He performs as Mouse, Scarf, and Angel in the New York Theatre Ballet's hour-long rendition of The Nutcracker, playing Saturday and Sunday at Florence Gould Hall (with a free show at the World Financial Center Winter Garden Wednesday at 12:15 p.m.).
Melendez, a Bronx resident who enrolled in the troupe's midtown school four years ago, is one of many scholarship students from Harlem and the outer boroughs. Diana Byer, NYTB's founder and artistic director, says her recruiting efforts have less to do with launching dance careers than with providing educational opportunities to low-income and at-risk youth. In fact, 10 to 15 percent of her students each year come through Project Lift, an initiative she started in 1989 to offer free dance lessons, mentoring, and reading instruction to children who have spent time in homeless shelters.
It's tempting to think ballet might save these kids from the street. But that asks too much of ballet and too little of today's youth. Besides, a glance at two of the city's major dance venues this week suggests that urban kids may be the ones saving dance. At the Joyce, dozens of spunky young city dwellers take the stage in Eliot Feld's troupe, Ballet Tech. At City Center, Troy O'Neil Powell, an ArtsConnection alumnus from East Harlem, just made his choreographic debut with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which performs his quartet, Ascension, Saturday afternoon and January 2.
Melendez, a sixth-grader on scholarship at Manhattan Country School, doesn't rule out a career in dance. He's got the talent and the temperament. "I once heard that if a painter's not dissatisfied with his paintings then he's not really a painter. I guess that makes me a dancer."