NEW WORLD DEAN AT CENTER OF SOUTH FLORIDA’S THRIVING DANCE SCENE. DANNY LEWIS HAS BUILT A REPUTATION AS WELL AS A COMMUNITY SPIRIT.
Reporter: JORDAN LEVIN Special to the Herald
March 23, 1997
It’s a good thing Danny Lewis is used to constant movement, because there is a stream of it running through his office at the New World School of the Arts in Miami. A visiting dance teacher from Spain has come to discuss curriculum ideas with Lewis, dean of New World’s dance department. Music teacher Bruce Lazarus needs to use an empty classroom for a drumming class. On the phone, a Canadian choreographer seeks grant-writing advice. Sophie Maslow, a former dancer with Martha Graham who is here to teach, gets her evening’s itinerary. For Cuban ballerina Rosario Suarez, who has stopped in with informational flyers, Lewis offers reassurance about the upcoming auditions for her new company.
As he rushes off to check on a rehearsal, his assistant reminds him about dinner provisions needed for students in that evening’s performance — but he has already taken care of that. Sometimes it seems that the entire dance world is meeting in Danny Lewis’ office. Few have had his kind of impact on the local dance scene: In the 10 years since he started as dean of New World’s brand new dance department, Lewis has expanded his realm from one studio, two teachers and fewer than 40 students to a nationally known school that places students in companies all over the country. New World graduates have danced with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project, Twyla Tharp, regional ballet companies and numerous local and Florida troupes. As it has built a reputation for excellent training, the school’s dance department — now with a student body of 200 — has become more competitive, drawing a higher caliber of students from a wider range of places. This year, 165 students auditioned for 25 spots in the college; 30 percent are from outside Florida, including Taiwan, the Caribbean and Latin America. “It is certainly one of the prime resources in dance in the U.S., ” says Benjamin Harkavy, Juilliard’s dance director, who has taken a number of New World dancers. Says Denise Jefferson, director of the Alvin Ailey school, “The kids are well-trained, disciplined, committed . . . and they have a good sense of themselves. “Danny is doing a superb job.” And Lewis has reached beyond the school as well. Not only has his work raised the level and quality of dance activity here, it has become a hub for Miami’s dance community.
In the 10 years he has been dean, Lewis has expanded from one studio and fewer than 40 students to a school known all over the country.
Dance dean building a reputation, community spirit
Danny Lewis provides inspiration and guidance to a new generation of dances at the New World School of the Arts.
A tap dancer at 5
Lewis grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and started tap dancing at 5 as therapy for a club foot. By junior high, he was dancing on television. His idol was hoofer Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. But instead of heading to Broadway, he went to the High School of Performing Arts (the Fame school) and discovered modern dance. “I met artists rather than showmen, ” Lewis remembers. From there he went to Juilliard, where he began dancing with Limon. One of the important figures in modern dance, Limon created a significant body of work and a technique which, along with Martha Graham’s, is regarded as one of the basic systems of modern dance training. Lewis trained with Limon from 1962 until his death in 1974, then directed and choreographed for his own New York-based company for 12 years. In his office are mementos from that phase of his life: a certificate of knighthood on the wall that he received after performing for Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia (the prince fled the country the next day), African drums that almost didn’t make it through Customs (“they wanted to know what kind of antelope skin it was”). Lewis then taught at Juilliard, eventually becoming assistant director. His career seemed clear: He would help run Juilliard and carry on Limon’s legacy. But in 1987 he was invited to take a look at the just-forming New World School of the Arts. He saw opportunity. “Juilliard was pure establishment, ” Lewis says. “Here I could do anything I wanted. How many times in your life are you offered that opportunity?” But his relationship with Limon and Juilliard has remained important to his work. “I always felt I had a connection with the history of modern dance because of who Danny is in the dance world, ” says Robert Battle, 24, who studied at New World and now dances with the David Parsons company, a well-known modern dance troupe.
Though Lewis eschewed the “establishment” of Juilliard and traditional dance, artistically he allied himself with them, rather than with more experimental form. At New World, for example, Lewis wanted to create dancers equally versed in modern, ballet and jazz (they also study Spanish, African, tap and other ethnic styles) who could switch techniques and styles as easily as they changed costumes. Perhaps because of his training and experience, Lewis and the school possess a certain conservatism. While students receive excellent traditional training, they have little contact with newer styles prevalent in contemporary dance. For instance, says New World teacher Gerri Houlihan, “I think there’s a huge interest in contact improvisation and release work [new modern dance techniques]. I do think students are coming out with a really solid base. It’s just that it could go further.” Lewis defends his system. “When it comes to technique, I stick to the ones that we know well, ” he explains. “It’s a better base in terms of our kids getting work.” But if his ideas about technique are traditional, Lewis also has an open-minded, bedrock belief in the creative individual. Students take choreography every year, and participate in numerous student concerts. Lewis also produces annual concerts with established local choreographers, partly through his nonprofit organization, Miami Dance Futures, which he started in 1988; he is planning a showcase for new choreographers in May. Married to Maureen O’Rourke, a massage therapist and anatomy teacher at New World, Lewis — who has no children — talks almost paternally about his New World “kids.” “Our kids are everywhere, ” he says proudly. “They’re getting picked first because they can do it all. And they’re good at it.” “He always has time to see a student, even if he’s meeting with the provost, ” says Roberta Kjelgaard, his assistant. “He knows you must reach kids’ souls, and he really tries to do that.” Lewis’ larger ambition for New World is that it be the source for a new generation of dance artists. “The next generation is going to make a difference here, not what’s going on now, ” Lewis says. He believes wholeheartedly in them, and in Miami. “They’re coming to me and saying [that] they don’t want to leave. They see a future here. They have visions. And hopefully they’re taking whatever I’m giving them and taking that next step.”
Photos: Jeffery A. Salter /Hearld Staff