When Laura Garrett was six, she was the wildest of the “Wild Things.” As one of Maurice Sendak’s unruly creatures in an NDI New Mexico end-of-year performance, she rolled her eyes, head, and body with the abandon of a movie alcoholic on a bender. It was hard to resist her zip. By then she was a show-biz — and National Dance Institute — veteran.
Laura recently recalled her stage debut. It was at a tribute for NDI founder, Jacques d’Amboise: “I was three, and it was at the Lensic. I played one of Jacques’ twin daughters.” While still a principal with New York City Ballet, d’Amboise began developing a method of teaching kids to dance. He challenged and encouraged them with pedestrian movements most children could accomplish: Get to the stage in exactly 30 counts, quietly, like a ghost. Jump higher — now bend your knees in the air. Dance to give children a feeling of achievement — the idea was simple and revolutionary. NDI was established in New York in 1976 as an outreach program bringing dance instruction into schools. In 1994, d’Amboise co-founded New Mexico’s counterpart. D’Amboise understood firsthand the transformative power of the arts on children. He grew up in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, and at an age when many of the boys in his neighborhood were joining gangs, d’Amboise — no stranger to life on the streets — joined City Ballet at fifteen.
Laura, now seventeen and a senior at Santa Fe Prep, has come up through NDI’s ranks. She graduated from its outreach program and has studied technique at the Dance Barns — tap, ballet, modern, jazz, and contemporary dance. She’s worked with d’Amboise; his daughter, Broadway dancer Charlotte d’Amboise; and Ann Reinking, keeper of the Bob Fosse flame. (Laura admitted to loving Fosse’s style: “It’s powerful and yet so contained.”) The young dancer has taken classes with Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet; City Ballet’s Daniel Ulbricht; and Michelle Yard of the Mark Morris Dance Group. Onstage, she has been a duck, a tiger, and a gorilla on pointe. She has performed extracts from classical ballets and original ballets and modern works by NDI’s teachers. Today, she is a member of NDI’s preprofessional company and dances with the local troupe Illumine.
A career as a performer would seem to be in the cards for Laura. “If it happens, it happens,” she said. A new ambition has been taking shape. While attending Urbanity Dance’s summer program in Boston last July and August, she heard about the group’s work with people who had Parkinson’s disease. “Once the music started, and the patients started to move, their symptoms seem to diminish.” This knowledge jumpstarted a memory Laura had of working as a teaching assistant several years ago with her mother, Diana Orozco-Garrett, a long-standing NDI instructor. “One summer, one of the students was disruptive and distracted the other kids. I tried to control him with stern reprimands, but this didn’t work. I found out he suffered from ADHD. I changed my approach and encouraged him to participate. By the end of the summer, he was able to channel his energy into movement. He knew he was successful, and even nicknamed himself ‘the Flying Hawk.’ ” From an early age, Laura had watched her mother in the classroom, and at fourteen, she was beginning to understand her mother’s method of teaching with a combination of humor, kindness, and discipline.
Laura laid out her new plans. “I want to open up my own dance studio that will serve the community. It will have three programs. The first will be a school that offers classes in technique — everything from ballet to hip-hop. And no child will be turned away for financial reasons. Then there will be a professional touring company. As well as performing, we will give lectures, classes, and demonstrations wherever we visit.” The company will serve as an outlet for Laura’s choreographic projects, she said. “The third stream — and the most important — will be outreach, working with people with mental and physical disabilities.”
To help make this idea a reality, Laura hopes to attend Baltimore’s Goucher College in the fall. “They have a great dance department, and I can also take classes in business and arts management.” Where will her studio be? “Maybe Baltimore. I think the city could use something like that.”
It looks like d’Amboise may have another disciple.