By LIESL SCHILLINGER
Published: Sunday, December 14, 2003
WHEN Diana Byer, the artistic director of New York Theater Ballet, found Steven Melendez at a homeless shelter in the Bronx 10 years ago, he did not look like a future Nutcracker Prince. ”I was 7, I had never danced, and I didn’t know a lot about ballet,” said Mr. Melendez, now 17, as he took a break from rehearsing with Clara and the Flowers for the company’s performances of ”The Nutcracker” this weekend and next. ”I liked football.”
In 1989, Ms. Byer initiated an outreach program called Lift, which brings disadvantaged children to her ballet school for a week of of classes. At the end, promising students are given scholarships and integrated into the larger student body. In 1993, Mr. Melendez hadn’t made the cut. ”He seemed completely uninterested,” Ms. Byer recalled. But on the last day, as children filed onto the bus back to the Bronx, Mr. Melendez wrapped himself around the leg of an instructor, held on tight and kicked so he wouldn’t have to leave. ”So I offered him a scholarship, and that’s how it started,” Ms. Byer said.
The next year, Mr. Melendez played a mouse in Ms. Byer’s ”Nutcracker”; in succeeding seasons, while attending her school, the Manhattan Country School and, later, the Professional Children’s School, on scholarships, he graduated to bigger roles; this is his first turn as the lead. Six feet tall, broad-shouldered, courtly and serene, Mr. Melendez dances with power and sweetness; his lifts look effortless, his jumps are airy yet controlled, and he blows a kiss to each Flower as if he sees her particular grace. He has already won spots in competitive summer programs at the San Francisco and Houston Ballets, and performed the lead child’s role in the Kirov Ballet’s ”Sleeping Beauty” at the Metropolitan Opera House. In January, he auditions for a coveted place in next summer’s programs at American Ballet Theater and the Boston Ballet.
Mr. Melendez said he particularly loves ”Sleeping Beauty” and ”Swan Lake”: ”I could see them a hundred times.” But if he could dance any role, it would be the slave Ali in ”Le Corsaire.” ”It’s a love triangle between a male slave, a pirate and a female slave, and it’s a really manly dance,” he explained. ”There’s a lot of jumping and spinning and turning. It’s a big piece that I’d like to dance on a big stage, because you need space to do it; vertical space because it’s got a lot of jumping, but also width and length and depth because there’s so much going on.”
He doesn’t like to think about what might have happened if Ms. Byer hadn’t found him. ”At 7, I was fine, but my life had the potential to get really ugly. I’m glad it didn’t,” he said. ”Dancing is something that I really love. But being happy; that’s something I really like, too.”