Back to where it all began

Anniversary: Alumni of the Baltimore School for the Arts return to celebrate 20 years of helping make artistic dreams come true.

March 05, 2000|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

At the corner of Madison and Cathedral streets in Baltimore is a place where children come to dream.

It is a place where dancers learn to soar, where singers tap into their inner voices, where sculptors breathe life into clay.

That place is the Baltimore School for the Arts.

Yesterday, more than a dozen former students who have made it on stage and screen and in music returned to perform in Expressions 2000, a benefit to raise money and celebrate the school's 20th anniversary.

They also proved to students that dreams can come true at the arts high school, which the National Endowment for the Arts ranks as one of the top five in the country.

"This is where everything started, where everything happened," said Larry Gilliard Jr., 32, a 1985 graduate who grew up in West Baltimore and left to study at the Juilliard School and the Acting Studio in New York, and has appeared in movies including "Simply Irresistible" and "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal."

"That's really all you had when you walked through the doors -- dreams," said Gilliard, who returns to Baltimore to visit his mother. "The school trained you, gave you technique, gave you foundation. This school changed my life."

Yesterday, he and other students, past and present, put the finishing touches on the big show -- three days of sold-out performances that began last night and feature the school's top talents in violin concertos, jazz ensembles, acting scenes, dance numbers and a chamber chorus.

In preparation yesterday afternoon, dozens of students rushed madly from dressing room to stage, while stage crews hammered the final nails into the set and costume designers sewed the last few stitches into leotards.

It was also the first time for most alumni to rehearse their numbers.

"Expressions 2000 is a reunion of sorts," said Leslie Shepard, dean of the arts school, who hugged several returning students. "For the students, it is a chance to see their role models. For the alumni, it is a chance to reconnect. For us, the school's success in 20 years is a dream realized."

Preparing for dress rehearsal, Larryn Williams sponged coffee-colored pancake makeup onto 16-year-old Charmaine Walker's white bra straps to camouflage them beneath a metallic pink costume.

"I'm a little nervous," said Williams, 17, who grew up in Baltimore's Pen Lucy neighborhood with Walker. "I've been dreaming all my life of being a dancer. I look at the people coming back who have made it, and I think, `That could be me.' "

A group of educators, business people, political leaders and citizens started the school in 1980 to fill what they saw as a void in arts education.

Every year, more than 1,000 students apply and audition to join the city public school. No more than 100 are accepted. Three-quarters of the 300-member student body come from Baltimore, the rest from surrounding counties.

The basics

At the imposing brick building, dancers who thought they would fly from the beginning first learned the basics of rhythm. Singers who wanted to belt out a song first learned how to breathe. Artists who rushed to create a masterpiece first learned how to draw a cube.

"A lot of times I feel like I don't belong here, and that sometimes I'm unworthy," said Jon Yoffe, 14, of Owings Mills, who sings in the show's chamber chorus. "There are so many talented people here."

Graduates have gone on to Juilliard, Berklee College of Music and New York University. Some have appeared with opera diva Kathleen Battle and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis or played with the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Some have been nominated for Grammys. Others perform for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

Many said they returned this weekend to give something back.

"It's not about lying, it's not about pretend," said Susan Rome, 35, a 1982 graduate who founded a theater company in Los Angeles. She returned to Baltimore a year ago to teach U.S. history at Roland Park Middle School.

`Private in public'

"It's daring to be private in public. It's intimacy with the kids," Rome said of her involvement. "It's creativity. It's all that energy."

For three-time Tony Award winner Hinton Battle, who choreographed one of the dance routines in Expressions, it was an opportunity to see the future.

"It is the best school in the country," said Battle, who has visited the school over the years to work with many of the students. "These are kids who will be out there in the field someday. These are kids I might hire someday or give recommendations to someday. These kids are good."

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