Watch Katie Smythe in action, and you’ll quickly realize there’s little that this petite founder of the New Ballet Ensemble & School (NBE) can’t do. The Memphis native had two deeply business and civic-minded role models in her parents, who, between them, started a handful of successful businesses and founded local non-profits. “They taught me about a life of service and urged me to pursue my calling,” says Katie. That calling was to make ballet and other forms of dance accessible to all children in Memphis through New Ballet, which stages Nut ReMix, its Memphis-themed take on the classic Nutcracker ballet, this month at The Cannon Center. Featuring 165 dancers and accompanied by the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, the ballet is set on Beale Street and blends classical ballet with hip hop, jookin and other dance genres. New Ballet was a 2014 recipient of the President’s Award for Creative Youth Development and has been featured on NBC’s TODAY show. Katie and her husband, Jimmy Gould, have a blended family with five children, and when she’s not at the barre with her young dancers, she’s traveling to visit her children. Today we’re thrilled to introduce you to her as our FACE of Memphis!
Describe your journey through ballet.
My grandmother, Mary Clay Smythe, was my first teacher. Raised in Memphis, she became a beautiful dancer, studied and performed in Chicago with the Lyric Opera and returned to Memphis, married and taught through the Great Depression in her living room. “Mommee” taught children regardless of their ability to pay, led volunteers at Le Bonheur hospital and was in the founding group of the Episcopal Girls Home. She lived a life of service through her love for ballet and dance, and that was imprinted on me from the age of 3. I don’t remember NOT knowing how to dance. She taught me dance and life lessons in tandem. NBE dancers walk past her portrait on the way into the studio every day, and her photos grace my office. She was a tiny, fierce and powerful advocate for children and dance. She taught me everything and then sent me to formal ballet classes when she knew I was ready at age 8.
Describe your early career. Where did you work, and what were your jobs?
By age 14, I was dancing soloist roles with Memphis Ballet and received my first paycheck as a professional dancer while still a student at Central High. Florence Leffler, our principal, allowed me to leave school to perform at other schools during the day. She even let our directors give me a grade for PE so that I could use that time to study since I had rehearsals each night until 10 p.m. I moved to Minneapolis upon graduation to dance for Loyce Houlton, a well-known choreographer who had studied with the modern dance greats, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham. What I loved about her work was the fusion of modern and ballet. That informed so much of my creative urge to blend authentic cultural dance with ballet, especially hip-hop, and to encourage the genius on our staff to do the same, to break barriers by breaking the traditional rules.
My favorite job at Minnesota Dance Theater, in addition to performing great ballets (George Balanchine ballets are my favorite), was working as a performer for the Young Audience tours through schools. We danced in cold gyms in January at 7:30 a.m., children’s community centers and museums, wherever we were called. Later, I performed the same role as a director and performer of Cinderella in Los Angeles County Schools for the L.A. Music Center. It was then that I knew I’d found my calling … to change the “outreach” model from performance and “exposure” to active learning and experience.
What was your catalyst for opening New Ballet Ensemble & School?
By teaching in New York City and volunteering at PS199, I took part in work to impart lessons in intentional conflict resolution among children. The principal there demonstrated to us that triumph over obstacles through intentional practice was a catalyst that propelled me to want to break down the walls that had separated my hometown of Memphis for so long … between black and white, rich and poor … by teaching what I knew to be a life-changing art form that addressed the special needs of kinesthetic learners. But it had to be a NEW way to dance and teach, one that eliminated the old, sometimes demeaning practice that I grew up with and one that held a door wide open for all children.
Where did the idea of Nut ReMix come from?
My crazy brain and desire to upend tradition while maintaining the instructive part of tradition and classicism that’s needed to build a dancer. So, it was my creative idea, but it was the students and later students who became our pros who formed it with their own ideas and made it evolve. Coley Campany returns year after year to tweak and refine the act one “party scene.” Christi Streeter brought in African teachers Candy’ce and John Washington in 2007, and they have led in every African divertissement in Nut ReMix since. Russ Lehman created Irish three years ago. Chris Roberts took my choreography for Chinese and enhanced it with the boys’ Kata (martial art fan dance) and giant Chinese Dog, all traditional elements of Chinese dance after a trip to China with his mother. Maxx Reed and Chris originated the hero and Rat King roles, switching off on any given year, and Lil Buck was the Rat King in 2007. They always invented choreography to suit their remarkable skills.
At the time you opened NBE, there were few, if any, ballet schools that did the kind of outreach you do. Has that changed in recent years?
Yes! And what makes NBE different from schools around the country is that we bring children together across all kinds of boundaries to grow up and train together. We are not one thing OR the other. But back to Memphis, it’s important for our citizens to realize that we are “stronger together.” All arts are. It’s not just the dance institutions that have changed. Many of us are unified in our desire to offer access, equity and to fill the gaps for all children. That said, there is so much more that needs to happen. I’m proud of the leaders who have come before me and paved the way to make it possible for what NBE has done and even made it possible for new dance institutions to be formed.
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be___________.
To fly and to make college free so that I could fly kids out of poverty and to the school of their choice!
What’s your best piece of advice for others?
Listen, and I need to listen to my own advice!
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Music of all kinds, the go-to dress when I’m stuck on what to wear, and seared tuna. (And I won’t say which restaurant).
The New Ballet Ensemble stages Nut ReMix at The Cannon Center, 255 N. Main St., Memphis, TN 38103, with performances taking place Friday, November 18, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, November 19, at 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday, November 20, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket prices range from $15 to $50.
Thanks to Micki Martin for her wonderful photos of Katie and the New Ballet dancers!
Feeling inspired? Nurture that by reading about even more amazing Memphis women. Click here to see our FACES archives!