NEA Arts Magazine

Full Exposure

Ballet East Brings Modern Dance to East Austin

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 A group of seven young women in various energetic arms-extended poses

The Ballet East Dance Company works with high schools in the low income neighborhood of East Austin. Photo by Jose Medina

"Ballet East shatters the myth that one has to live west of Interstate 35 to be a highly trained dancer," said dance critic Sondra Lomax. This is a testament to the work of Rodolfo Mendez, who in 1978 founded the Ballet East Dance Company. Mendez's determination exposed the low-income neighborhood of East Austin to modern dance, providing opportunities for local dancers and choreographers to develop their skills.

Ballet East presents a minimum of eight performances a year, including new works and restagings set on the company by local and nationally recognized choreographers. The company also provides youth internships in stagecraft, presents community-wide folk and traditional arts festivals, and runs Dare to Dance, an after school dance program for students ages 7 to 15 who are at risk of dropping out of school. Dare to Dance was recognized in 2002 and 2003 as a Coming Up Taller semifinalist.

In order to broaden its reach among East Austin youth, Ballet East partnered with East Memorial High School (formerly Johnston High School) for the 2007- 2008 school year. In partnership with the school, the company presented two dance demonstrations and seven in-school performances for the entire student body. With 80 percent of the students coming from families with limited economic means, this opportunity to view live, professional dance was rare. "You wonder if the kids will be interested," said Mendez. "But they sat through all the performances. . . . Seeing dance live keeps their attention better than viewing a tape."

The company also took 240 eleventh- and twelfth-grade students to dance productions by Ballet East and fellow local companies Ballet Austin and Tapestry Dance Company, an opportunity Mendez said would not have been possible without NEA grant support. For many of the students, this was their first experience in a professional theater, seeing how the lighting, sound, and set all contribute to the final production. As part of the field trips, Ballet East arranged for the students to meet the dancers and choreographers.

Through the school's Arts Academy, company dancers and choreographers held in-school classes in dance fundamentals and Horton modern technique. Ballet East also opened up master classes to the entire school, which were taught by Regina Larkin, artistic director of New York City's Joyce Trisler Danscompany, and Francisco Gella, a freelance choreographer who has worked with Philadanco.

"Exposure" was the key word for Ballet East's year at East Memorial High School. From in-school demonstrations to master classes to field trips to professional productions, Ballet East was invested in providing the students with as much access to the world of dance as possible, creating a new generation of dance audiences, and -- for the students who have gone on to take Ballet East classes full-time -- perhaps a future as a dancer.