RED CARPET MOMENT: Former Princeton dancer Diana Byer, left, with dancer Steven Melendez, at the opening of the documentary “LIFT: A Journey from Homelessness to the Ballet Stage” last month.
By Anne Levin
Since her days as a charter member of the Princeton Regional Ballet Company (now American Repertory Ballet) in 1963, Diana Byer has been busy.
The Trenton native danced with several ballet troupes before founding the New York Theatre Ballet (NYTB) company and school in 1978. Just over a decade later, she started a scholarship program for underserved children. A documentary film about the program, LIFT: A Journey from Homelessness to the Ballet Stage, debuted last month at the Tribeca Film Festival.
While she recently stepped down as artistic director of NYTB, Byer is far from retired. She still runs the school. And she is working on putting together a small company of dancers over the age of 60, including Robert LaFosse, Monica Bill Barnes, and Meg Harper as well as herself.
“We all want to dance and we still can,” Byer said last week. “We’ll experiment first, find some choreographers, maybe do some in-house performances at the studio and see where it goes. We can still move. We still have something to say. It’s worth looking into.”
During her 44-year tenure heading NYTB, Byer focused on restoring and reviving small masterworks by choreographers such as Antony Tudor, Agnes de Mille, and Frederick Ashton, as well as hour-long ballets based on children’s literature. Along the way, she became involved in a program that bused homeless children to cultural organizations during their holiday break.
“We served a hot breakfast, taught them about ballet, did reading and vocabulary, gave them a hot lunch, and created projects for them,” she said. “Each kid got to take home books. But the flaw that I saw was that they got something wonderful for six days, and then it was over. So that’s how I started the program LIFT Community Services.”
LIFT is a year-round study program focused on kids living in homeless shelters and public housing. Based on auditions held in shelters and other locations, it enrolls up to 30 children a year. They get partial or full scholarships, and additional support with things like medical care, clothing, and field trips. According to the NYTB website, LIFT has been recognized by the White House and the National Endowment for the Arts as a model national program.
“Our program is very small. It’s kind of a safe haven for them,” Byer said. “Nobody really knows where they come from. But we do. Who knew how these kids lived? I didn’t. You have to intervene and give them every tool they need for learning, and some of them — not all — will thrive.”
Among LIFT’s success stories is Steven Melendez, who joined the program in its third year. Named Byer’s successor as artistic director of NYTB in April, he is prominently featured in the documentary about LIFT. “He wasn’t one of the kids I had offered a scholarship to because he was so shy,” Byer recalled. “But the day he was leaving, he grabbed onto my leg and wouldn’t get onto the bus. So, of course I had to take him. We raised funds for him to go to private school and the Professional Children’s School. We do that with other children if we feel we need to get them into a private system.”
Melendez “had an immense talent for dancing,” Byer said. “He was with us, then went on to dance throughout Europe and South America before coming back to New York Theatre Ballet. He is very gifted.”
The film, by David Peterson, followed the program for just over a decade. “When I said yes to the idea, I thought it was going to be three weeks. And it was 11 years,” said Byer. “It was disruptive in a funny way. But we made it through, and I think it’s very touching.”
Scenes in the film of Melendez working with children from the homeless shelter where he lived as a child are particularly affecting. Also featured prominently is Victor Abreu, who was not from a shelter, but started with NYTB as a 10-year-old. Abreu is now a member of the New York City Ballet.
“He is extraordinary,” said Byer. “He’s got such gifts. He had a lot of stage experience with us, because we use children in special roles for kids. We also do in-house performances where they learn how to do lighting, costuming, and choreography. They’re performing in front of people all year long. So, when Victor got onto the stage with City Ballet, he was not like a deer in headlights.”
Byer is pleased with Abreu’s success. But steering children toward professional careers is not necessarily the goal. “I think the program is about learning life lessons,” she said. “These kids come with a different set of problems you have to address. Many of them have done very well, with full rides in college and having good careers. Many stay in touch with me. but not all of them. They move on, and we give them the tools to move on. That’s the result we’re after. You break the cycles. But it doesn’t happen with everyone. There are successes and failures.”