February in Miami and what a great round of dance concerts by New World School of the Arts. It may be a coincidence that the luck of a Chinese New Year and one of the best experiences to date as a freshman student at New World happened in just a few short weeks during the month of love. Last weekend I was a part of something incredibly special at New World School of the Arts (my personal mecca), as I volunteered for Dean Daniel Lewis’ retirement gala “A Life of Dance”.
It was also no coincidence that my teachers from the past were there alongside the biggest names in dance from the past and present (and there was even a little glimpse of the future) sitting in the audience. It was at this concert that I fully understood the power of dance and the everlasting impact of Daniel Lewis in the world of dance. It may sound completely wayward but the building where the concert was held (at the Gusman Center) couldn’t contain the beauty and wonder of such an exuberant and loving energy. I was there in the audience and back stage chatting it up with the greats like Gerri Houlihan, Carla Maxwell, James May, and Robert Battle, as well as dancers from the Martha Graham Company and the Jose Limon Company. As a volunteer I was given the distinct honor of ushering the evening’s presenters from their seats to their staging areas and ended the evening presenting the bouquet of flowers to the Dean as he took his last bow for New World. Everything that each presenter told of Mr. Lewis was an exact account of my own experiences with him, nothing deviated. Here is a man who has set it up for the incoming generation of dance marvelously, and with such meticulous attention to the detail in making sure a legacy of dance is carried on for even more generations ahead. The concert’s Artistic Director; Josee Garant was the glue for this performance. It was amazing how she made the concert run smoothly while still teaching us on how to conduct ourselves in a professional manner during every process of the concert’s management, I took advantage of this impromptu learning experience.
The doors opened at 6pm and familiar faces trickled in to take their seats. I had a wonderful conversation with Lizette Piedra, alum of the Boston Ballet and my ballet teacher for many years (this woman has had a profound impact on my life). As more people kept filing in to the theater, I bumped into Robert Battle, the new director for the Alvin Ailey Company and alum of New World. I introduced myself in an instant and handed him off to fellow usher Justin Suarez (who was in charge of making sure Mr. Battle got to his seat). The best part about this moment was that the director of the world renowned Alvin Ailey company was; a) absolutely cordial and so down-to-earth and b) absolutely real when he told Justin “hold on one minute I gotta get my Momma.” Later I had a quick chat with Robert Battle’s mom; what an amazing spirit of a woman. In the five minutes of words I had with her, I knew why Robert Battle was successful and AMEN to that.
The show began with some charmingly funny words by Mr. Battle followed by a beautiful video documentary of Mr. Lewis. I had never seen footage from Mr. Lewis’ early years at Julliard and then in Miami for New World – eyes were definitely watering in the house. As the stage curtains went up for Gerard Ebitz’s “Passengers”, silhouettes of the high school students were in pose ready to go. Mr. Ebitz has been teaching at New World since the 80’s and is a ballet master and choreographer all over the world from Miami to Canada to Budapest and back! His contemporary ballet choreography was so beautiful and exciting to watch it made me feel like I was floating 2 feet above my seat (it also makes me hope that he’ll re-stage it at some point before I graduate so I can have a shot at it).
Continuing the program was Peter London’s Frida with sophomores, juniors and seniors from the college division. Jessica Quintana’s interpretation of Frida Khalo, Johan Rivera’s Diego, Arianna Rosario’s Christina and Anasthasia Grand-Pierre’s eerie role of Frida’s Vail of Anguish was an amazing balance of dancers and story telling.
Next up was Gerri Houlihan’s presentation about the Dean. She recounted stories of adventures with Mr. Lewis at Julliard and later at New World, even claiming that he was a “stud muffin” back then and still is to this day. Gerri is co-dean of the American Dance Festival and an absolutely ravishing and exciting woman. I had my first Gerri encounter this past year during the Winter Dance Festival and I was hooked. She also teaches modern dance in Tallahassee at FSU. After her presentation, New World alumni Liony Garcia (Florida Dance Association) and Heather Maloney (Houlihan Dancer and owner of Inku8 in Wynwood Miami) performed their own works titled “Bacheh” and “Held” respectively. Following that was Gerri Houlihan’s own work “In Your Dreams” as a collaboration with Bill Doolin and Gabby Malone set on dancers Jessica Mayhew and Joshua Reaver.
Michael Uthoff, director of Dance St. Louis, gave his presentation on Dean Lewis and recounted a story of friendship, respect and gratitude amongst two distinct artists. Rosie Herrera, New World alum, presented an excerpt from her works “Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret” and Ana Padron with Diego Blanco (also alumns) presented their tango pieces “Zum” and “Taquito Militar.” These were great works with a spin on traditional partnering work between two dancers.
To me, the most emotional part of the evening must have been the Jim May presentation. Mr. May, director of Sokolow Theater Dance Ensemble, a highly respected Jose Limon dancer (and lecturer) spoke about “
Danny” Lewis as if they were brothers. His words were endearing and beautiful and his solo “September Sonnet” (choreographed by Ana Sokolow) was incredibly moving and most inspirational.
As the dances continued, the Martha Graham dancers each took the stage with solo works by Graham herself. First was Jacqueline Bulnes, a graduate of New World, with Satyric Festival Song from 1932. Andrea Murillo, also an alum, performed Serenata Morisca from 1916 and Mariya Dashkina Maddux danced the Bride’s Solo from “Appalachian Spring” 1944. What more can I say than these solos were executed strongly and professionally. My goodness I love Graham.
Finally Carla Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Jose Limon Dance Company, took the stage and gave a beautiful declaration of the Dean’s care for a “respected elder” Jose Limon. Dancer Roxane D’Orleans Juste performed Mr. Limon’s “Spanish Dance” from 1948 and hypnotized the audience with her control and expression on stage.
The concert wrapped up with Robert Battle’s “Battlefield” which was staged at New World in 2001. This is a piece that has been performed in New York as well as Prague. It is a powerful and award winning choreography of about 20 dancers that won 1st place at the New Prague Dance Festival last year.
When the dean took his bow he gave a short speech with gratitude and appreciation to all the performers and attendees he said something that struck me “make sure you fight for the arts to stay, it makes for great humans.” This is something I have always believed in and here is a man who has and will always guide us. Congratulations Dean Lewis on your 24 years of success at New World School of the Arts!