An Artistic Director Gives Kids and Families a Lift

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By Vanesa Vennard

Diana Byer gets to her studio on East 39th Street at 7 in the morning, every morning. She first catches up on paperwork then teaches her ballet company from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Then she rehearses the company from 11:45 a.m. until 4.

From 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., she teaches children classes. And after completing some more paperwork, Byer finally heads home.

"It's a very long day," she said. "But for any small arts organization in a major city, the artistic director has very long days."

Byer is the founder and artistic director of the New York Theatre Ballet, a company that performs classic and original ballet for adults and families and teaches ballet for children. Founded in 1978, the company has become known for its programs, such as the LIFT Community Service Program, that gives scholarships to kids who may not be able to afford ballet classes.

LIFT has been in effect for 24 years and is an outreach program that goes to shelters around the city for kids who are homeless or at risk. The children audition and up to 30 kids each year are awarded scholarships to help them enroll in the Ballet School NY, part of the New York Theatre Ballet. Byer said children also get clothing, mentoring and tutoring, whatever the individual child needs.

"It's more than just getting ballet lessons, the whole child is addressed," said the New Jersey native. LIFT also has a year-round Study Program. "We address the needs of a child on an individual basis. And the children are integrated into our regular classes, there isn't a special class for scholarship students."

Byer said that she sees a lot of talented young people come through her program and is currently working on raising money to send a 12-year-old boy to private school. "He's extraordinarily talented," she said. Because of the scholarship program, Byer said Ballet School NY is able to give talented kids the right tools to make it in dance.

"And there is a lot of talent out there. The children and the parents can't begin to address their future because dancing lessons and music lessons and art lessons, all those things, are very expensive," she said. "So we're able to offer this program for talented dancers."

Other programs include one-hour shows for children and family audiences and the company shows new and classic works by choreographers such as Antony Tudor, Richard Alston and Jerome Robbins. Performances are held at Florence Gould Hall on 55 East 59th Street. "We also identify emerging young choreographers and produce their ballets as well, we call it Legends and Visionaries," she said.

Byer attended Julliard and received her principal dance training from Antony Tudor and Margaret Craske. While Craske trained her, Craske asked Byer to help with fellow students who were having difficulties, which led to Byer's teaching.

However, she still dances in walk-on and acting roles to what she refers to as the "old lady roles." She appears in Antony Tudor's Judgment of Paris and she plays the wicked fairy Caraboss in their Sleeping Beauty performance.

Byer is on the board of directors for the Dance Notation Bureau and she has been a guest faculty instructor at institutions such as Cornell University, New York University and the Cecchetti Society of Canada in Toronto.

Though the New York Theatre Ballet has been around for an impressive 33 years, Byer hopes for improved funding to continue expanding the program for many more years to come. Lately Byer said it's been difficult to get people to come to shows since many are distracted by technology or limited money. But with her commitment, the show will go on.

"Ballet will never go away, it's one of the universal art forms," she said. "It will always be here."

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