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Alison Stewart: This is All Of It on WNYC. I'm Alison Stewart. A new documentary follows the stories of homeless and home insecure children, who find hope and a future through ballet. It's titled LIFT. We meet dancer, choreographer Steven Melendez, who returns to his old neighborhood, and to the shelter he lived in as a young boy. Against the backdrop of barbed wire and poorly lit halls, he's there to offer the kids a chance to learn ballet through a program called LIFT.
He also faces some of his own trauma, which becomes apparent in just the first 20 minutes of the film. Director David Peterson followed Steven and three dancers, Yolanssie and Sharia, whose families are in and out of the shelter system, and Victor, who lives in subsidized housing. They follows them over a decade of their lives as their families work to balance their kids interests in performing with their day-to-day concerns, jobs, keeping a roof over their heads.
A New York Times review said, "Director David Peterson's bare-bones, on-the-ground production works well for a story like this, highlighting how vital these small workshops and homeless shelters and community centers can be." The documentary is titled LIFT. The Film will be available to stream via video on demand on Apple and Amazon Prime on September 22nd. Joining us to talk about it is Academy Award-nominated filmmaker David Peterson, who directed the film. He is also known for his 2004 feature-length documentary, Let the Church Say, Amen. About how a church in DC became a symbol of a local community. Welcome to the studio, David.
David Peterson: Thanks for having me.
Alison Stewart: Also joining us is Steven Melendez, the new artistic director of the New York Ballet Theater. He's currently a member of the Alumni Advisory Committee on the Diversity and Inclusion for School of American Ballet. Steven, nice to meet you.
Steven Melendez: Really glad to be here.
Alison Stewart: Steven, how did you become involved in ballet as a kid? How did you first get there?
Steven Melendez: 30 years ago, I was a seven-year-old boy living in a homeless shelter in the South Bronx. Diana Byer, who is the founder, and the artistic director of New York Theater Ballet at that time, came in and offered ballet classes to any of the children in the shelter who were interested to take them. My mother forced me to do it because she's a mother. No, she forced me to do it because, there's a rule in the shelter that the children couldn't be without an adult, and my mother was a working mother. She couldn't afford daycare or afterschool care as it were, so I joined the program.
Just a year later, I had my first time on stage as little mouse number two in the Nutcracker. As you might imagine, most young ballet dancers have that experience. I was so overwhelmed with the idea that all of the people at the end of the performance were clapping. They were applauding the performance that I just put on. Now, the reality is they were probably applauding the professional dancers behind me, but I thought they were clapping for me. That set off a whole new journey for me.
I eventually became a professional dancer. I was lucky in my career. I traveled the world and worked with companies in South America and Europe, and I started the program in Japan. Now I'm back at New York Theater Ballet as the artistic director. It's really, really interesting to have come full circle and to see now the same program, the LIFT program from the other side.
Alison Stewart: What if I had asked seven-year-old Steven, what this LIFT program was? What would he have said?
Steven Melendez: Oh, that would've been a complicated question. It would've been a complicated question because I'm a Puerto Rican boy from the South Bronx. At seven years old, ballet wasn't really a thing in my life. It wasn't really a thing in the lives of the culture or the community that I'd come from. Honestly, that long ago, it really wasn't a thing in classical ballet, to see minority people on the stage. All of it was fish out of water territory. I think seven-year-old Steven would've thought that this was an interesting hobby to keep to himself, which was very important, and not much else.
Alison Stewart: David, you became aware of the LIFT program through an encounter in a dog park, as one does. What did you think when you first heard about the program and then when did your producer, director brain kick in?
David Peterson: Richard Termini was a photographer for the New York Times, had a dog named Nickleby. He said, "Dave, I've got a great idea for a documentary," because he had just seen one I'd done about a small opera. He said, "These kids, they've danced all-- some of the kids have danced all over the world." Of course, he was referring to Steven. "They came from homeless backgrounds. I photographed them." I said, "Okay, where's the money? No money." I said, "Where are they located?" He said, "Midtown." I said, "I got a camera. I got a student I was teaching. Maybe I'll go down there."
That's when I met Steven. He was dancing a Richard Alston piece. I met little Victor who was only 10. I never had a vision what Victor would become. He was just the first kid that I could see that was in LIFT. Then it took about five years to actually get into the shelter. It was with my creative producer, Mary Racine, who got us into the shelter.
Alison Stewart: I was going to ask, that's got to be really difficult to navigate that territory, of getting a camera, getting media anywhere near the shelter system.
David Peterson: Yes. I mean, the shelters always get bad press, and there's a lot of people. We just did a screening for the whole social services of NYC. I've got to tell you, this shelter was amazing. We can't name it, but I'll just say that they were incredible. They allowed us access over the period of years. They saw Steven as a rockstar because that was the very shelter, the only shelter we got in was the one where he grew up. As you can see from the film, he has a reaction, a very profound reaction.
Alison Stewart: Of course. When you work with these kids, Steven, how do you navigate some of the obstacles associated with young people who have housing insecurity and living in shelters?
Steven Melendez: I have the benefit of centering all of my interactions with the young people in the dance studio. In a way, I can rely on the normal for dancers, the normal teaching elements that we have of work ethic and discipline, and responsibility. All of those things would be required of any young person studying dance. What I found is that, by mastering those life skills for a young person, they are able to tackle what's happening in their home life in a very different way.
The other part of this is that young people today are more mature than they were a generation ago, even more mature than they were two generations ago, and so on. The children that are coming from these shelters, from these home insecure environments, are growing up really fast. When you've got an eight year old who cognitively comprehends that they have to do something, they have to look after their two-year-old siblings, for example.
Alison Stewart: Sister. Yes.
Steven Melendez: They're the ones responsible for cleaning up the house, because mom is out doing something else, or dad is out doing something else. They have a different head on their shoulders about them. When we get into the dance studio, it's easy, I think easier for them to apply what they're learning that, on its level, is really about the dance technique. I think they can see the parallels to how they apply it to the rest of their life.
Alison Stewart: Dave, what was it like for you to watch these kids grow up? It is over this 10-year period and you see the ups and downs and how adolescents can take you down one road or down another?
David Peterson: Yes. I didn't plan to take 11 years to do this, but the wonderful thing about that, and Steven has said this too, is that in ballet you don't see the progress for a dancer, let alone a child over a period of years. You just stop into a class and suddenly you see them do a plié right. For these kids, I just fell in love with them, their families, especially because I think it was very important for me and Mary to portray the families as being families, like all of us, who want the same things for their kids.
I started to cry. I still cry every time I see that film. It's 335,000 times I've seen it. Every time I see Sharia and Yolanssie, take in the applause, just like Steven described. I can see their eyes glistening and I just fall apart. It's really that covenant of trust that comes with spending so much time in a family's life and in these children's lives, and to see them grow, and now seeing Sharia and Yolanssie go to the premiers, it's a real affirmation.
Alison Stewart: My guests, art director David Peterson, and dancer and choreographer and featured player in this film, Steven Melendez. We're talking about LIFT. I want to play a clip and we can talk about on the other side. This is a visit, Steven, you make to talk to Sharia's parents, about why she's been missing some dance classes. Let's take a listen, this is from LIFT.
[Audio from LIFT, playing]
Steven Melendez: Sharia, she's coming up so well, but you're not taking dance classes now, right?
Sharia: I'd rather do ballet.
Steven Melendez: I want you to do ballet too. Yes.
Sharia's Mom: Since I was working, I got off at 2:30. Then I would have to go pick her up, and then bring her down there. Half the time, we'd be like an hour and a half late.
Steven Melendez: Oh God.
Sharia's Mom: I'm serious. We be pushing it to get here on time, but I'm not working right now, so it shouldn't be [crosstalk] a problem to get down there.
Steven Melendez: Good. I'm glad she'll be able to go. I'm sorry you're not working though.
Pros and cons.
Sharia's Mom: Now it shouldn't be a problem.
Sharia's Dad: That she's able to go.
Steven Melendez: Good. The tricky part is just that it's so far away, right?
Sharia's Dad: Yes, but we'll be leaving out of here real soon. Living in this society, you have to, man. You have to.
Steven Melendez: When you have so many kids, how do you keep them out of that? How do you--
Sharia's Mom: Soon as the light's on, "Come inside," because that's when you know it got crazy out here.
Alison Stewart: It's from the film LIFT. As we see these children age, Steven, it's both interesting and upsetting to see how they can get knocked off track. Sometimes it's through bigger picture issues, like the electricity gets turned off in the house. Sometimes it's internal conflict. Yolanssie, who has just got this great spirit, the spirit, she becomes a bit of a fighter in school. She starts getting in a lot of trouble. You are not having it, which is kind of interesting to watch that happen. Did you have a moment in your life when you could've gone off the rails like that?
Steven Melendez: Every moment in my life, I could've gone off the rails. Just what you're saying is right, that when you're set up to approach life from deficit as these children are, anything can knock you off track. My family growing up, it was a single-family home, so maybe we were at a disadvantage because we only had one parent. I don't think so. I think my mother was amazing, but perhaps I could understand an argument from that perspective, but the truth is that we lived in the shelter and my mother was concurrently working as a medical researcher at Mount Sinai Hospital. She left the shelter every day in a white lab coat.
Just imagine that a single mother who had a proper job, who was a responsible adult person, gets evicted. As you can imagine in New York, what does it take if suddenly overnight somebody says, you can't live here anymore. You need your first month's rent and your last month's deposit, and you need the moving truck charges and you need to pay the broker, and you need to do all of these things. Who has that kind of money in their savings account? What was the guy a couple of years ago here in New York who started his political campaign from mayor?
Alison Stewart: Rent's too damn high.
Steven Melendez: Right. Love that guy. That's a real thing that the truth is that most people are home insecure. They just don't know it. One paycheck, imagine your life, you miss one paycheck. What does that do? Most people don't pay their bills that month, and most people then therefore have a hard time catching up. You imagine a medical emergency, you imagine the car breaks down. You imagine if you own your home, maybe the water heater needs replacing. Most people can't find their way out of that hole. If you stack just two very normal but unfortunate events in someone's life, suddenly they're out of their home. That is the case that we see.
That's the distinction. I think a lot of people, they imagine homelessness and they imagine the stereotype. They imagine the drug dealers or the prostitutes or the mentally ill or the migrants who have come up with absolutely nothing, destitute. That's one kind of homelessness. Okay, fine. We can tackle that, but there's another kind of homelessness and they're different from each other. My family was in that other kind. I think that this invisible epidemic in America, and certainly in New York, we see it in New York all the time. Growing now of homelessness and home insecurity is only invisible because we as society choose to look the other way.
Quite literally, we step over the homeless as we walk down the streets of New York. It's unfortunate because there are lots and lots and lots of things that can be done to make a dent in this problem. Not all of them will require fundamental change. They're really simple things. One of them is a program like LIFT. There are LIFT doesn't, on its face, we don't provide houses. We don't give people money so they can get houses. In that way, I could imagine somebody making the argument that we don't really tackle the homelessness crisis. I would argue with them because what we do is we provide actually after food, shelter, and education, I think the next most important thing, and that's a future, that's hope, that's dreaming.
For the young kids especially. It's the power of communication. That's what dance is. It's an expressive art form used to communicate one's emotions and feelings and dreams and hopes and aspirations. These young children who already-- Any young child doesn't have agency. They're told what to do and where to be and how to do it by their parents and their teachers and their coaches and whomever.
You put these children, you add that normal lack of agency that a child has, and you add to it that often their parents don't have agency either because they're at the will of the person managing the shelter, or the boss that determines their work schedule, as you heard in that clip a moment ago. Suddenly, these children are growing up without hope, and that's a real problem.
Alison Stewart: We're discussing the film LIFT and all the important issues it touches on Steven Melendez is my guest, as well as director David Peterson. I want to play a clip from Victor. David, tell us about Victor.
David Peterson: Oh, Victor was a great, sweet kid. I'm not sure what a clip you're going to play, but I followed him since he was 10 years old. I said, "Wow, what is this kid?" He's had so much promise, and he has this urge to dance, but Baryshnikov said, "You're not born to dance. You just have to want it more than anyone else."
Alison Stewart: I think he wants it this, at least we get that in this clip. He's talking-- Victor's talking about his experience attending the American School of Ballet. This is from LIFT.
Victor: When I came here, it was really challenging because there were so many boys in my class.
Ballet Instructor: Good.
Victor: Everybody here wants to be in New York City Ballet. It's a competition here.
Ready? Throw your legs.
Victor: That's my main dream. Be a professional dancer at New York City Ballet.
Ballet Instructor: Jump. Jump. Big jump, Victor. Big jump, up.
Alison Stewart: Steven, you said the Victor reminded you of you as a kid. How so?
Steven Melendez: Yes, Victor had the same drive and passion that I think I had. He was a young brown boy as I was growing up, finding his way through the classical world of ballet. I saw him in him the same, oh, we could use positive words, right? The drive and ambition, but we could also use the other side stubbornness, which is really what I am. I'm a stubborn person. The thing that he and I that I hold against him a little bit is that he is such a better dancer than I was.
Alison Stewart: Oh, [laughs]
Steven Melendez: He's so good. Now, he's at New York City Ballet now, and he's really got his whole life ahead of him, and I'm really proud of him.
Alison Stewart: There's a moment in the film and I won't give it away, but we've all been reading the book. I think it's The Body Keeps Score about trauma and your body clearly reacts to being back in the shelter, Steven. Did this work on this film in anyway help you work through that trauma?
Steven Melendez: That's an interesting thing. David followed me around with a camera for 10 years and every other month he wanted to do an interview. Every interview started with, "Tell me about your childhood." I thought, "This is worse than therapy. I can't go through this, this many times." It's difficult because I didn't know, and I'm sure David didn't know either, what the film would be before it was what it is. He was, I think, documenting in real time my evolution as a human person and my change from considering myself first as a dancer, as an artist who was overtly running away from the hyphen, running away from the adjective of being the homeless ballet dancer.
Now, actually quite the opposite of that, I've evolved to realize that I have to own that because through ownership of that, I can set an example, I can be a role model for others. It's been a wild ride.
Alison Stewart: Dude. Every video thing I've ever worked on long term, we used to call it the sobstory. You're sick of them. They're sick of you.
When was that moment when you're like, "I'm sick of this. I don't know if I can keep going."
Steven Melendez: Oh man. It's funny too because when Mary and I were getting toward the end of this, and we were thinking, "Okay, we're going to press the submit button to Sundance." She was saying, "Are you sure you're done? " I said, "Yes, I'm so done ecause the picture is locked. The editor said the picture is locked and I've been editing on it too. I say, it's locked. Hovering above the button and I say, "Maybe it's not done." We took another six months to finish it. I'll tell you, that was worth all of that revision because I restructured some things and I changed the way in which you present the children's and so on.
That actually made a huge difference in terms of the perception of the way the story unfolded, and then we trimmed it down and we made it. Take 11 years. Take 11 years, please, because it does really pay off ultimately. Hundreds of hours of footage filmed over 11 years. Trimmed down to 90 minutes. Dozens of children that were followed by David and his crew, and in the end, only three or four actually are in the film.
Alison Stewart: We only have about a minute or so left but I'm interested about-- Victor obviously could have a career in ballet, but most of these kids won't.
Steven Melendez: Most of them won't, and that's okay. Not only is it okay, that's kind of the point. At New York theater ballet our LIFT program isn't designed to make dancers. That's a fool's errand. We're designed to make incredible young adults. As I said earlier, all of the skills that these children learn through their lifespan in the dance studio will serve them. Whether they're a line cook at McDonald's or a heart surgeon, they have to know how to take responsibility for themselves, and that's what ballet teaches.
Alison Stewart: David, what's a moment in the film that you'd really like people to pay particular attention to? There's always that magic moment.
David Peterson: The moment, of course, when Steven is talking to Yolanssie. There is a moment which she's basically she's already hit the teacher, and she's dropped out of ballet, and now she's suspended from school. Steven says, "If I was in the desert, and I told you, you were going to be cold at night, and it was hot now, would you believe me?" She's looking at him. He says, "I'm the man of the desert, and I come from the same neighborhood you come from, and you're going to have to be careful because you could be dead. You could be pregnant, you could be all these sorts of stereotypes." They said, "Don't do that because I'm here saying, 'Put your jacket on.'"
Alison Stewart: The name of the film is LIFT. It'll be available on video on demand, I believe on Apple and on Amazon Prime starting September 22nd. My guests have been David Peterson and Steven Melendez. Thank you so much for coming to the studio.
Steven Melendez: Thank you for having us.
David Peterson: Thank you. Thank you.
Alison Stewart: There is more All Of It on the way right after the news.
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