Three Cheers for Artists
Whenever Carrie Lazarus heard reports about yet another local ballplayer accepting a college scholarship, she couldn’t help but think of the young singers, dancers or musicians who would not be trumpeted by the newspapers, interviewed by reporters or raved about at office water coolers on Monday mornings.
Instead of getting angry and criticizing the local media for lacking arts coverage, the WSYR-Channel 9 news anchor created a spotlight for young performers and developed a program to give some of them the chance to learn from the best in their fields.
“I think our culture doesn’t value the arts like it values sports,” Lazarus says. “Ask a seventh-grader who his heroes are? What do you think he’d say? That’s our culture today. I really saw a need for this.”
Lazarus created a television segment called “Extraordinary People and Places of Central New York,” which sometimes featured local students who were involved in the performing arts. A year later, in 2013, she established the Extraordinary Talent Fund. So far, the program has awarded $23,820 to 11 local students, according to the Central New York Community Foundation, which helps administer the program. The grants were used to partially or fully cover tuition costs of training programs, seminars or instructional camps in the recipient’s respective art. Lazarus, who is also involved in reviewing the grant applications, will continue to lead fundraising efforts to help the program grow.
Manlius-Pebble Hill graduate Tevin Johnson, the program’s first recipient, was awarded a grant last year to attend a competitive summer intensive program at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. He successfully auditioned for the program the previous summer but didn’t have the $5,000 for tuition, room and board.
“I felt that wasn’t right,” says Lazarus, who featured Johnson on her television segment. His situation inspired her to create the fund. In December, Johnson performed at the “Extraordinary Live” event at the Landmark Theatre to help raise money for the fund. He attended Alvin Ailey’s summer program again this year and is currently enrolled as a dance major at Montclair State University in New Jersey, which awarded him a scholarship.
Not bad for a kid who didn’t start formal training until he was a teenager and learned how to dance by watching So You Think You Can Dance.
At the summer program, Johnson learned how to dance as a member of a company, not just as a soloist. His mother, Tonya Johnson, says baseball, gymnastics and other sports came easily to her son. He would get bored with one sport and move on to another. Dance, she says, was the only activity he didn’t tire of after a few months. “It was the only time that he had his stuff on and was waiting by the door telling me to hurry up.”
“I felt like dance was the one thing I could not complete,” Tevin Johnson says. “Wherever you are now, you can always get better. But unlike sports, you can actually see where you, as an individual, are headed. And you know right away what you need to work on.”
Lucas Button, 20, of Syracuse, a cellist, was awarded a $9,000 grant to attend an eight-week training program this past summer at the Aspen Music Festival and School in Colorado. Some of the other participants were already professional musicians. Button was coached by some of the top conductors and music professors in the nation and enjoyed performing for a group of Rhodes scholars.
What he’ll remember the most about the program is the deep love for music shared by everyone there. “The level was very high, but it wasn’t an intimidating environment,” Button says. “Everyone is able to look past the differences in levels of musicianship and focus on making this beautiful music.”
His mother, Ilze Brink-Button, and her husband, Steven Button, are music teachers, but they tried not to push performing arts on their son too much when he took up the instrument at age 7. After attending music camps around the time he was in middle school, Brink-Button says, “He got the bug.”
“Little old Syracuse is producing kids in the arts,” she says. “The arts are not dying.”
Button completed high school at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school in Michigan, before continuing his education at Rice University in Houston, where he recently began his junior year as a music major. He called the Aspen program “unbelievable and inspiring” and says it was also a great networking experience for graduate school. His career dream is to become a member of a touring and recording string quartet.
“There’s just something about the say that you have in a group of only four people,” he says.
Dixie Szafranski says her 12-year-old daughter, Theresa Szafranski, was awarded about $1,200 to attend a two-week program at the American Ballet Theatre in New York City. The faculty there included professional dancers from France, Russia and New Zealand. It has been the highlight of a dance career so far that started at age 2 in Baton Rouge, La., and continued in rural Wisconsin and then on Wellesley Island, near Watertown. For an entire year, her parents made the three-plus-hour round trip to Dance Centre North in Mattydale four times a week before they moved to DeWitt in 2013.
Szafranski says her daughter was very focused on dance at a young age, but it also helped that she had a dancer’s body: three toes that are the same size (peasant’s feet), a long neck and a small head.
Theresa previously performed for the New York City Ballet during a summer program last year at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Szafranski was already searching for grants to send Theresa to the American Ballet Theatre when she heard about Lazarus’ fund. Szafranski insisted on paying half because her oldest daughter, Abigail, lives in Queens and could provide her little sister lodging and transportation to the program.
“I didn’t want to be greedy,” Szafranski says. “I know they are trying to help a lot of young performers.”
Theresa said she especially enjoyed how the professional dancers’ techniques varied by the nations they represented. She was most inspired by the Russians.
“They are very strict and very dedicated,” Theresa says.
A few weeks after returning from the American Ballet Theatre, Theresa successfully auditioned for the role of Clara in the Albany Berkshire Ballet Company’s production of The Nutcracker. “It has been a dream of hers to be Clara since she was young,” Szafranski says.
Rebecca Flanagan, 16, a student at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, won a grant for about $2,000 to attend the nine-day Studio2Stage intensive Irish dance workshop in August at New Jersey’s Kean University. She began as a tap and ballet dancer at 3 years old and moved on to Irish dancing at age 7. She currently attends classes at the Johnston School of Irish Dance in Syracuse five days a week, with each one lasting up to three hours.
“I liked it right away because it was something I really had to work hard at,” she says.
Irish dance is typically centered on competitions—and Flanagan has a bedroom full of medals, including ones from previous world-level competitions in Belfast and Dublin. But the performance side of the art has become increasingly popular in the United States since the debut of Riverdance and other touring shows. At Studio2Stage, Rebecca got a taste of what it’s like to rehearse for a major production and then perform in a show where she wasn’t competing with other dancers.
“The biggest thing for us was to get used to loosening up more and being able to move around more”—without the movements and stances being judged on a fine degree of precision, she says. “I love to compete, but based on this experience I really love shows now.”
Some of Rebecca’s friends from the Johnston School traveled to New Jersey to watch the performance. One of the things she loves about Irish dance is the camaraderie she shares from her studio as well as with dancers she’s faced from other nations. They continue to stay in touch after the competitions.
Her mother, Laurel Flanagan, was “blown away” at how professional the Studio2Stage production was, despite the relatively short time that the young dancers had to prepare for it.
“The energy was even more than what I saw at Riverdance,” Flanagan says.
Rebecca aspires to join a major performing company some day. She isn’t ruling out college, although as far as she knows there are no competitive Irish dance programs at the collegiate level. “Dance,” she says, “is the biggest thing in my life.”
Her mother believes that the popularity of Riverdance and similar productions will help the art continue to grow in the United States.
“In the mid-1980s, only Irish communities or families that were really into their Irish heritage knew about it,” Flanagan says. “In Ireland, it’s such a big part of their culture everywhere. Everyone either has someone in their family that competes or knows someone who does really well. But North America has burst onto the scene and is holding its own.”
The Extraordinary Talent Fund is one of about 600 funds administered by the Central New York Community Fund. Last year, the organization provided about $200,000 to various arts organizations, not counting Lazarus’ program, which is specific to the performing arts.
Organizations can apply for funds annually, says Olive Sephuma, director of community grant making. She added that grants have been awarded to cover start-up costs for new organizations, or to help organizations that have incurred unexpected emergencies. For example, the Community Fund helped to rebuild a ballet studio that was damaged by fire.
Monica Merante, donor relations officer, said Lazarus’ program is unique in that it benefits individuals instead of organizations.
“It’s a major helping hand to young people who have a passion for performing arts,” Merante says.
Aaron Gifford is an award-winning writer who lives in Cazenovia with his wife and two children.