New World School of the Arts celebrates 25 years of talent

The students streaming into New World School of the Arts on this August morning are not looking back as they hurry toward their future. They pack giggling into elevators in the downtown school’s main building and rush down staircases echoing with singing. They pace outside a theater on the eighth floor, coiffed and tense, waiting to audition for this year’s productions of Shakespeare and Chicago.

One floor down, modern dance teacher Rosalyn Deshauteur, fresh from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, surveys a studio full of black-clad young dancers and declares, “I’m going to push them really hard — they can take it.”

“Look where you’re going!” she calls. “You can jump a little higher! Yes!”

As the sound of teenage voices echoes through the halls of the music building two blocks away, vocal music student Maya Hunter, a 16-year-old high school junior, says New World is where she has always wanted to be. “Exciting things are happening here, real things,” she says. “We’re all very closely connected, and it’s like one big family.”

After 25 years, the New World family has become multi-generational. Maya’s mother, Katie Christie, was among the first high school students when the school opened in 1987, and her father was part of the first college class.

For Christie, then a star-struck musical theater student, and many other kids who crowded a Miami-Dade Community College auditorium on opening day, New World was a dream come true — Miami’s version of New York’s High School of Performing Arts, immortalized in the hit movie Fame. When one of Christie’s friends jumped onstage and began pounding out the movie’s Hot Lunch Jam on piano, the room erupted in dancing and singing.

“There was a really explosive creative energy,” says Christie. “I thought wow, this is going to be an amazing opportunity for me to really learn how to be an artist the way it’s done in New York, the real deal. All of a sudden possibilities seemed more reasonable to me. From that moment on I started to believe I could accomplish things.”

Talented grads

And accomplish they have. In the quarter century since New World was launched from empty storefronts in a mostly desolate downtown Miami, graduates have gone on to Broadway stardom and prestigious dance troupes, to Hollywood movies and top museums. The school has provided a stream of artistic talent that has helped transform Miami’s cultural life, seeding dance companies, theater troupes, experimental art centers and film festivals.

Consultant and lobbyist Seth Gordon was one of a handful of educators and civic leaders who launched New World, selling the idea to the community and the Florida Legislature. The arts conservatory would have a hybrid structure, with the high school under the aegis of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the college under what is now Miami Dade and — penciled in at the last minute by a state senator — Florida International University (later the University of Florida).

“It was incredibly difficult to get people to support it,” Gordon says. “People did not understand no matter how much we explained.” The hit movie with its exuberant street-dancing scene was a selling point — for some. “It was the only art school most people had heard of,” Gordon says. “But we were talking to bankers and it just didn’t resonate — they’d say, ‘Why do we need kids dancing on car roofs?’ ”

But New World would prove to be a template for the city’s changing identity — energetic, confident, proudly multicultural, a bit naïve, creating itself from scratch without blueprints or precedent. It was propelled by a burst of civic energy in the wake of the Liberty City riots, Mariel boatlift and cocaine wars, that in the 1980s also gave rise to the South Florida Art Center, the Miami International Film Festival, the Miami Book Fair International, the Colony Theater, the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, the Rhythm Foundation and the New World Symphony.

New World students never danced atop cars (though they do dance through downtown on their way to graduation at Gusman Center for the Performing Arts). But their dreams were, in their own way, just as joyful and improbable.

“We had the sense that we were pioneers,” says Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who grew up in Liberty City and graduated from New World high school in 1990. Battle fell in love with modern dance in a studio in a converted jewelry store (the changing room was in the vault), finding validation as a male dancer after enduring mockery in middle school. “We all felt this sense of pride about what we were forging ahead with,” Battle says. “There was a bonding around this new world.”

Common goals

No longer pioneers, the current crop of students is still bound by a shared passion to create in a place where drawing at lunch, practicing pirouettes in the hall or singing on the stairs mark them not as adolescent misfits but as members of an artistic family.

“We all have a common goal,” says Maya Hunter. “I’m not a dancer but I’m an artist just like a dancer is an artist. We love to express ourselves. And we have a goal to touch people with our art. So everyone understands each other.”

Budding visual artist Emily Baro, a 14-year-old ninth grader, prefers drawing to watching TV at home. Now she is thrilled to have four glorious hours of art every day. On the day she learned that she got into New World, she and her mother ran shrieking around the house. “It was the best day ever,” Emily says. And just over a week into the school year, “Already I feel at home. It feels like a big family, and I don’t even know everybody.”

Her mother, Karin Baro, a graphic artist who was one of the school’s early college students, felt the same sense of comfort. “I felt perfectly in place because there were so many people from all over the world,” says Baro, a Swede drawn to Miami by a cute Cuban guy — now her husband and Emily’s father — she’d met here on vacation. “Sweden was very monotone, very safe. Here was such a vibrant new environment.”

The energy verged on chaos in the early days. Before headquarters opened in 1990, students trudged from building to building around MDC’s downtown campus. Many awoke before dawn to take buses or the Metrorail to school and stayed till after dark to rehearse, create and bond — a rhythm that continues.

“We probably had more freedom than teenagers should, which forces you to be responsible,” says Lara Murphy, a dance student from the first high school class who now teaches at New World. “From an adult perspective that’s probably a bad thing. From our perspective it was a good thing.”

For both the students and the school’s leaders, that freedom outweighed any practical problems of a startup arts school in a city uncertain of its value. “Here was a clean slate, an opportunity to start something from scratch,” says Richard Klein, who left a job as principal at New York’s Performing Arts High School to be New World’s first provost. “How could you resist that?”

Founded by risk takers, the school instills that skill in its students.

“For two years New World gave me a safety net, a place to try things and fail and figure out how to succeed,” says Randall Emmett, a Hollywood producer whose credits include 16 Blocks and Narc and whose fall releases star Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert de Niro and Bruce Willis.

An actor in the first crop of high school students, Emmett started making movies with video cameras borrowed from the audio visual department and showing them in the cafeteria. To make his commute more interesting, he organized shows for startled fellow Metrorail passengers with a cast including Katie Finneran, who became a Tony-winning Broadway star.

“They really let you do whatever your creative urges were,” Emmett says. “That’s how I’ve become so successful in business, because I’m not afraid to take chances.”

More organized

These days, New World is a more disciplined, organized venture. It is still relatively small, with 473 enrolled in high school and 392 in college this school year. Most high school students are Miami-Dade residents, but college students also come from across Florida, the United States and as far away as Australia, Argentina, France and Taiwan.

All spend half the school day in academic subjects, the other half in artistic study, often followed by hours of rehearsal and practice. Despite the grueling schedule, and the fact that admission is by audition or portfolio, not academic record, New World students regularly win educational as well as artistic honors. Last year, two students were Presidential Scholars in the Arts, and a third, dancer Javier Aranzales, won a Gates Millennium Scholarship to attend Harvard University.

They owe much of their drive to New World’s no-excuses attitude.

“This school is one of the best to prepare you to get out and conquer the world,” says college junior and theater major Marcela Paguaga, 21. She smiles at the sweating sophomores ahead of her in line “who look like they’re going to the guillotine” as they await auditions: half a minute of impassioned Shakespeare, then a quick chorus from a Broadway tune for a table of impassive professors. “It’s hard to get in here, but it’s much harder to stay in,” Paguaga says. “They want to make sure this is what you want to do for life.”

In an increasingly test- and career-driven educational environment, New World remains a place where experimentation, creativity and thinking for oneself are paramount.

On the first day of Miami gallery owner Fred Snitzer’s Workshop for Art Research and Practice class for college freshmen, 38 students listen intently as he tells them they need to get to galleries and museums on their own, and that for the first assignment — creating sculptures from copy paper and blue tape — “it’s more important that you do it than that you do it right.”

“I get tougher on them as I get older,” says Snitzer, 60, who’s been teaching at New World for 20 years. “But I’d much rather be around 17-year-olds than 60-year-olds. They make me better. They make me think about things and question myself.”

New World teachers know that however tough they are, the world is much tougher. So they work to build not only talent and the practical skill to nail an audition or assemble a solid portfolio, but the resilience and self-knowledge to survive inevitable setbacks and possible failure.

Christie, who started with Broadway dreams, decided that her destiny was closer to home. In her senior year at New World, she started Voices United, a group where teenagers write songs and shows about issues and experiences that matter to them. She still heads Voices United, which has performed at the White House and been featured in national media.

More healing

Christie says New World taught her that Broadway wasn’t for her. “I realized it was more pressure than I could take,” she says. “I was really thrilled to use my art to be more healing in the world and not worry about using it for myself.”

After two years at New World, her daughter Maya has discovered a talent for composition.

“I’m mostly inspired just walking the hallways and observing my friends,” she says. “That’s what shaped me. I didn’t like to write songs till I came here. Now I’m writing a lot.”

She hopes to follow a student mentor to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. And she hopes her family tradition with New World will continue.

“I’m someone that thinks about the past and the future and how they connect a lot,” she says. “If I ever had kids that went here, it would be really exciting for me.”