BACK TO DANIEL LEWIS
May 29, 2011
Author: Jordan Levin, jlevin@MiamiHerald.com
Twenty-four years ago, Danny Lewis rented a graduation gown for his first commencement ceremony at the New World School of the Arts, donning it in his new job as dean of the dance division.
“It still fits me. It’s loose,” Lewis says, standing in his office and smiling as he pulls the black folds over his head, mocking the physical pride of the dancer he was before all that desk time expanded his waistline. On this April afternoon, he will accompany one last class of college dancers as they strut through downtown Miami and onto the stage of the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, embrace each one as they receive their diplomas, then watch proudly as they take their first official post-graduate steps into the world.
fabulous class,” says Lewis, 66. “My only function is to hug and kiss them and
make a fool out of myself.”
passionate, we have to be passionate too,” says Ronderrick Mitchell, 27, who
says Lewis persuaded him to keep dancing when he worried that his short stature
would keep him from a career. “He really cares about us. You can always go to
his office and pour your heart out. He’s like a father to us.”
Many of the
students say they feel like Lewis’ artistic children.
Since then, New World’s dance division has become Lewis’ greatest legacy. A public school with the quality of a top-flight private conservatory, New World offers high-school diplomas and associate and bachelor of arts degrees in partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Miami-Dade College and the University of Florida. Many of the choreographers, directors and dancers at the heart of Miami’s dance, performance and creative scene either studied or taught at New World, and its graduates can be found everywhere, from the casts of Broadway musicals to major modern dance troupes.
enjoyed most about this place was the being able to make a lot of things
happen,” Lewis says. “That makes you feel good when you know you started
something that’s workin! g. What more could you ask? I’m a very lucky man.”
Lewis’ first piece of luck was bad: he was born with a club foot. A doctor recommended tap dancing, not something a Brooklyn boy of the 1950s would ordinarily find appealing. Tapping not only enabled Lewis to overcome his disability, but it also took him to New York’s famed Laguardia High School of the Performing Arts (the Fame school) to study modern dance, then to the even-more-renowned Juilliard. There he met Jose Limon, the Mexican-American choreographer who was one of the pillars of modern dance in this country. Lewis became one Limon’s best-known and most-stalwart dancers from 1962 to 1974.
As soon as he
graduated from Juilliard in 1967, Lewis began teaching there, remaining until he
left to take the deanship at New World in 1987. He would make his greatest mark
as an educator, directly and indirectly influencing the lives of thousands.
and respect that Lewis has aroused over the years was palpable at a tribute at
Gus! man in F ebruary, at which the audience ranged from Lewis’ 60-something
contemporaries (who made lots of joking references to his “stud muffin” status
in the 1960s and ’70s) to joyful, screaming New World students. Robert Battle, a
1990 high-school graduate who has just become artistic director of the Alvin
Ailey American Dance Theater, spoke from the stage.
Gerri Houlihan, a former New World teacher who is now co-dean at the American Dance Festival, spoke of how Lewis’ support had enabled her to start a company during her time in Miami.
“I’m one of so many people Danny has done this for,” she said. “Danny has always had that ability to see someone’s desire and talent and to stay with them once h! e’s made that determination.”
Lewis is conservative and tradition-minded in some ways, but he also has a probing curiosity and a strong faith in individual creativity and initiative. He could have had a comfortable place in the dance establishment at Juilliard, where he had become assistant director. Instead he chose to run a start-up school in a city not known for culture. The training at New World is mostly traditional, the sort of classic modern dance, ballet and jazz prevalent during Lewis’ career, a combination he says gives his students a solid yet versatile technique that enables them to work in an intensely competitive field.
“I believe in tradition,” he says. “These kids graduate doing traditional work. But any choreographer who asks them to do something, they can do it.”
And yet, in Miami he became an enthusiastic advocate of ethnic dance, bringing in teachers of African, Caribbean and Spanish styles.
“I had a dream of where I wanted things to go,”! Lewis says. “But I adapted as things came up. I hadn’t planned on doing world dance. But when I looked out my window here, how could I not?”
He has also been an early and ardent adapter of Internet and computer technology. In the mid-1990s he installed a high-speed, high-capacity Internet system in the school over the protests of teachers who thought the money would be better spent on toe shoes. Working with the Digital World Institute at the University of Florida, he has involved New World students in innovative multi-media projects, such as Hands Across the Water, broadcast on the BBC in 2006, in which a woman travels to cities on five continents on a musical quest. He enthusiastically touts The Virgin Queen, a piece the school presented this spring by British guest choreographer Darshan Singh Bhuller, with a set made of elaborate projections.
“Unless we change the way we present art and dance we’re gonna lose the audience,” Lewis says. “Technology needs to be melded into dance. It’s been melded into theater for years.”
graduates reflect both sides of Lewis. Some are strongly aligned with
traditions, such as Battle or the new members of the Martha Graham troupe who
gave passionate, beautifully rendered performances of 60- to 80- year-old Graham
works at the Gusman tribute. Others, such as Rosie Herrera, with her vivid,
eclectic dance-theater pieces, or Heather Maloney, who runs the Inkub8
performance space in Wynwood, have more personal, Miami-specific visions, which
they were able to forge because Lewis created a dance school here.
them as among his greatest achievements. .
But he will miss his students terribly, their “flying hormones,” their dramas, fleeting and profound. There was the boy, pressured by his father for being gay, who left a suicide note on his locker in the late 1980s (Lewis dispatched some college students, who found him in time). There was a gir! l who lived out of the back of her car but went on to join a major company.
“We save lives,” Lewis says. “We do it every day of the week.”
He will miss sharing the triumphs of those who take what they’ve learned at New World into the world, such as the text message he received from Battle (“I got it!” ) when he found out he had the Ailey job.
Even after the high-school students graduate on June 9, Lewis will make one more journey with New World — taking his college students to perform in Puerto Rico and Italy. When they leave for home, he will stay, celebrating the end of his time at New World and the beginning of the next stage of his life.
“I’ll face west and wave,” he says. “I totally avoided walking out of this building in tears.”Copyright (c) 2011 The Miami Herald