NEW YORK - Steven Melendez, 36, was recently named Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Ballet. He is only the second person to hold that title in the company's 44-year history.
"It was the first place I ever took a ballet class and coming back here now, full circle, is pretty incredible," said Melendez.
His journey to "full circle" began when he was introduced to ballet at age 7 while he and his family were homeless and living in the South Bronx.
"My mother, my younger sister and I were living in a New York City homeless shelter and I was trying not to get into trouble," said Melendez. "I played football quite a bit and I was really a boys- boy and ballet just inspired something new in me."
Melendez was a product of "Project Lift," a community service outreach program that finds at-risk and underserved New York City children and introduces them to ballet. It is the brainchild of Diana Byer, Founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of the New York Theatre Ballet.
Byer said the program strove for diversity and inclusiveness, adding that "the world is diverse and the art world should show the world. So we've always been diverse and I think that being able to find children that are living in homeless shelters, who have no advantages, don't know the art, there's a lot of talent there. So it really opened my eyes."
Both Melendez and the program are the subject of the new documentary film "Lift" -- which focuses on homelessness and the healing power of the arts. Academy Award-nominated filmmaker David Petersen followed Steven, the ballet company, and young ballet recruits for 10 straight years.
"The most astonishing thing of tracking children or young people, young dancers over the course of ten years is that you start to see them change with all the challenges," said Petersen. "Snd you start to see something that you never see in real-time with dance is to see their development. And that development is astonishing."
"Every person is different. Every young person needs something different and I would encourage youth to seek what they need for themselves and find a way to make that a reality and recognize that it's okay if they're different from the person next to them. In fact, they're probably better off for being different than the person next to them."
"LLift" has been accepted into the 2022 Tribeca Festival and will premiere on June 12. It's sure to be a certain reminder of what happens when you take a risk on those who are at-risk.