New Ballet Ensemble's After School Program Recognized by the White House


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Briana Brown (L), Her grandmother Belinda Lowery (R), and Lil Buck (C). At the White House.
  • Briana Brown (L), Her grandmother Belinda Lowery (R), and Lil Buck (C). At the White House.

I could tell you what perfect beauty looks like. But it's so much more effective to show you. Before going any further take a second to click on the video embedded below and watch as 17-year-old New Ballet Ensemble student Briana Brown receives some very good news. Also, pay careful attention to the face of her grandmother, Belinda Lowery. It’s the best thing you’ll see all day, I promise you.

Now that your heart is all warm and happy, here's the backstory. Today at 1:00 p.m.CST, Brown and 11 other young people from across the country will meet First Lady Michelle Obama, to accept the prestigious National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award on behalf of their respective after school programs. The award honors programs that go beyond basic arts training to change kids’ lives.

“It’s highly competitive,” says Katie Smythe, NBE’s founding director.

The White House award is being presented just days after NBE’s most famous alum, Charles “Lil Buck” Reilly was profiled in the Wall Street Journal. Buck, and fellow NBE alum, Maxx Reed, who performed on Broadway in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, are both returning to Memphis this month and will dance with  Brown in Nut Remix, the fusion company’s annual, Memphis-specific answer to The Nutcracker.

Those interested in seeing the award ceremony live can watch at this link. Also, I asked Brown a few questions before she left for Washington D.C. Here’s a taste of what she had to say.

More to come. 

Intermission Impossible: What brought you to New Ballet Ensemble.

Briana Brown: I was seven years old and my mom brought me in because she had a friend whose daughter came here. My mom always wanted to keep me active and I thought it was a really cool after school activity. I started off with basic ballet training, but as the years went by I flirted with other genres like jazz, and a little bit of contemporary.

Was this your first experience with dance?

I took a little tap and did gymnastics, but it wasn't serious. It was just something my mom tried out, but I didn't like it.

What made New Ballet Ensemble different?

I was intrigued by how everybody was doing the exact same things together. It was different and I was interacting with people I might not even talk to otherwise. I was a single child at the time. I didn't have that many friends or a lot of interaction with people at all.

But what is it that made dance more interesting to you than gymnastics?

It was about expression. It was a way to express yourself in a whole different way. Being onstage to tell a story instead of trying to beat someone or to win something. You're performing and entertaining people. At the same time you're having fun, so it's win-win.

Was there a special moment when you knew dance was your thing?

It took a long time to realize this is what I want to do. I didn't have my “Oh my God, this is important to me” moment until I was 12. It happened onstage, believe it or not. I was in a pose, and the curtains were closing, and I remember feeling so sad because I wanted to do more, to keep dancing. It was a performance of Nut Remix. I was snow. It felt like a movie: No, no! Don't close the curtains! It just felt so great to be there, with the adrenaline, and the lights, and the people all around me. Wow. It was a pivotal moment for me.

What were your favorite classes in school when you started dancing?

English classes. Anything related to expression.

So dance was, for you, an extension of that, really.

Yes, it was.

New Ballet has changed a lot in 10-years. Can you look back and describe what it looked like to you through seven-year-old eyes?

When I started [NBE] wasn’t where it is now. It was still in the icehouse [on Central]. There were maybe 70 people in the room. And I think I was the only one that didn't come prepared. Everyone had on a pink leotard, and pink tights, and ballet flats. I had on a white T-shirt and black pants. I was not ready.

The thing that’s neat is how, over the time you’ve been with NBE, the company and school has evolved into a unique place where classical and street styles mingle pretty freely. What’s it been like to watch that?

I've always thought that New Ballet was the kind of place that gathered people from every spectrum of our city. That's exactly what Miss Katie [Smythe] did. She had a vision, and these people came together, and they formed relationships with each other based on their own individuality. That’s what creates things like Nut Remix. The Nutcracker is a classic ballet, but we take it to another level by setting it on Beale Street. That makes us unique. And it’s very special to me, having an opportunity to be part of a community where I can interact with so many people. So many kids don’t ever have a chance to interact with people who are different than them. Kids who go to school in Orange Mound don't really interact all that often with people from St. Mary's. At least not the way we do here. And the bonds we form are so strong. 

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