Jordan Levin

YoungArts Week brings top teen talent to Miami for world-class mentoring

Melanie Ramos has just finished a technically flawless run-through of the dance solo she’ll perform for an audience of arts world luminaries when she finds herself locked in an unexpected struggle with her mentor: Determined to elicit more expressiveness from the 18-year-old, former Alvin Ailey dancer Aubrey Lynch II grabs her wrists and shoves.

“Fight me!” Lynch yells, as Ramos, startled and red-faced, pushes back. “C’mon! You hate me! What do you want to tell me!”

Suddenly, Lynch releases her and stands back: “What do you want,” he asks, “that you can’t have?”

Just being in Miami City Ballet’s studios as one of 171 talented teens from across the nation selected for YoungArts Week would seem to offer everything someone like Ramos could want.

The New World School of the Arts high school senior and her fellow performing, visual, literary and design artists were chosen from more than 11,000 applicants — an admissions rate of 1.5 percent. (By comparison, Harvard University last year admitted 5.8 percent of the students who applied.)

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During their week in Miami, which wraps up Sunday, the students are mentored by some of the most accomplished artists in their fields (architect Zaha Hadid and visual artist James Rosenquist are among this year’s faculty). Those experiences can yield scholarships at top institutions, work at prestigious troupes and venues and career-making connections. All 171 receive awards of from $1,000 to $10,000, and 20 will be named Presidential Scholars in the Arts, which brings more money and a White House awards ceremony.

The program’s challenging nature also produces intangible results that can be even more important to these aspiring artists. In fact, pushing them beyond their often exalted comfort zones is one of the goals.

“In a week there’s this transformation,” says Lisa Leone, vice president of artistic programs for the National YoungArts Foundation, headquartered since last year in Miami’s historic Bacardi Building. “There’s this intensity — and it breaks them in a positive way, to crack open a potential that maybe they didn’t know they had.”

Created in 1981 by the late Ted Arison, founder of Carnival Cruise Lines, and his wife, Lin Arison, who remains its main supporter and advocate, the foundation boasts such star alumni as actors Viola Davis, Kerry Washington and Adrian Grenier and musicians Terence Blanchard, Josh Groban and Nicki Minaj.

But its greatest contributions to the nation’s cultural life are the 17,000 young artists who have passed through the program over 33 years and the sense of empowerment and possibility they take with them.

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The Herald explored YoungArts Week 2014 through the eyes of Ramos and fellow finalist Max Jaime Korman, a design student from California who turned 18 on Saturday.

“Some people will think about who’s gonna get the most money or be a presidential scholar,” says Ramos, who lives in Southwest Miami-Dade. “But we’re all winners. I’m more happy that I’m here than about the money I’m going to get.”

“I’m so blessed to collaborate with such a talented group of people,” says Korman. “More than any scholarship, this is potentially forever — and that’s very exciting and empowering to me.”

For Ramos, empowerment begins at about 9 a.m. Tuesday at Miami City Ballet’s Miami Beach studios as the 21 dance finalists segue from a short warm-up class to coaching on the solos they’ll perform at the New World Symphony’s New World Center the following night. Ramos and the seven other modern dancers work with Lynch and Nasha Thomas-Schmitt, a finalist from YoungArts’ first year who became a star of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and now runs its AileyCamp program.

“When you get nervous, find the movement that makes you feel beautiful,” Lynch tells them. “Every exercise you do is part of the dance of your life.”

He zeros in on Ramos, who is carefully tracking her form in the studio mirror. “You’re so beautiful — those eyes!” he says. “But you go inside. Come out!”

“She has to own her power,” Lynch says during a break. “I’m training her to be vulnerable — to be private in public.”

Ramos, who has been dancing since she was 4 and competing since she was 7, knows self-consciousness is her weakness. She was accepted to YoungArts in both choreography and dance performance, and chose the latter. But despite her achievements, she’s always worrying that she’s not good enough.

“I don’t appreciate the talent that I have,” she says. “When I get compliments I feel uncomfortable. I have to be content with myself first in order to appreciate other people’s thoughts. But there’s always something in my head that I think I could have done better.”

Ramos and her peers exhibit an almost uncanny level of technique, but Lynch and Thomas-Schmitt are probing for motivation and emotion — impact beyond exhilarating ability. Ramos has decided her sensuous and defiant solo is about wanting something badly, and they push her hard.

“I want to see you,” Lynch tells her, unsatisfied. “Tell me your story.”

It’s not until the afternoon that Ramos breaks through. The self-consciousness and careful calculation fall away, and she becomes a lunging, longing creature.

“That’s what I’m talking about! That’s it!,” Lynch exclaims. “That’s impressive!”

He urges all the dancers to push themselves just as hard.

“You’re hungry,” he says. “You have to be this hungry all the time, forever. It takes that kind of commitment if you want to be in the game.”

The scene in Korman’s design workshop on Wednesday could not be more different from the studios where the dancers leap and laugh. In a classroom at the Miami International University of Art and Design, 12 students (five from Miami’s Design and Architecture Senior High) huddle quietly at white desks, sketching, peering at laptops and staring out the window.

This is the first year YoungArts has offered a design program, and instructors Helen Maria Nugent of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Adam Drisin of FIU have come up with a difficult, immersive project that mimics a real-world design charrette. Each student has been assigned a native Florida bird and given four days to create an object, ostensibly for the park in front of New World Center, that will teach people about it. After two days of research, discussion and creative play, the teens have to come up with a design today so they can build a model by Friday.

While Korman, who is from Los Altos, has studied drawing and painting, he has never designed an object. "Before I came here I didn’t think of myself as a designer," he says.

However, he has collaborated with a California classmate on a program (patent pending) for a virtual keyboard that uses gestures, a kind of touch screen in the air.

"That gesture can be done anywhere; it doesn’t have to be done on a point in space," Korman says quietly, casually proposing to transform the way computers work. "And by redefining the function of the keyboard in that way it opens up a new world of possibilities for what the personal computer can be."

The questing intellect and creativity he exhibits is ideal for the design field, his mentors say.

"Design is intellectual thinking made form," says Drisin. "You have an opportunity to change the way that people think about the world. Jaime is really excited about the process, and he does see it as intellectual exploration rather than as producing a product."

Korman has found he also loves collaboration.

"Having another person there to work with you is a really powerful thing," he says. "They act like a buffer to your highs and lows, so you don’t get too cocky or feel too defeated."

The hard part has been to focus his imagination to come up with an actual object. "I’ve been flipping between ideas that are totally feasible but don’t contribute to a greater conversation, and things that definitely create conversations but are practically impossible," he says.

Korman’s bird is the white ibis, and he’s fascinated by its graceful, seesawing motion. He’s come up with a cone-like water fountain that would mirror the bird’s delicately arching beak and make users mimic its curving movements. "I want to make something that surprises people," he says.

But he struggles with practical issues like how to turn on the water and what platform will support the fountain. Nugent and Drisin praise his form, but press him on how it will work.

"You’re filled with ideas, but now you have to boil it down," Drisin tells him.

"This project, I keep hating it and loving it," Korman tells teaching assistant Mauricio Gonzalez.

"That’s how you’re always going to feel,” Gonzalez responds. “Because sometimes you’re lost."

After all the coaching and inspiration, what YoungArts finalists accomplish, and take home from their week in Miami, is ultimately up to them.

"Our focus as professional artists is to give them a strong sense of reality," says dance mentor Thomas-Schmitt. “You have to show yourself to have something different. What we want them to realize is sometimes you only have one chance to show what you have."

On Wednesday evening, the night of the big show, Ramos shows something new to herself and the audience that fills the New World Symphony’s main hall. Crouching, rippling, striking, she is consumed, the self-consciousness of the previous day entirely gone.

The next morning she sounds exhilarated. "It was one of the best moments of my life," she says, crediting Lynch with pushing her to this new place. "He helped me open up," she says. "He told me things I never would have thought of. I needed them to get to where I need to be. It helped a lot onstage. I knew exactly what I wanted to do."

By late afternoon on Thursday, Korman, too, has come to terms with what he needs to do. He’s figured out a mechanism to release the water and a base for his arcing fountains. Although he’ll be working until 11 p.m. to finish his model, he’s happy.

"I feel like I accomplished that in a way I didn’t think was possible yesterday," he says. "There were complications I didn’t expect to deal with. What I ended up creating is pretty simple. But the path to simplicity is a complicated one."

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