The Woods Hole Public Library will continue its Lasalle Dance Lecture Series this summer, beginning on Tuesday, July 18, with a screening of the documentary film LIFT. Since the summer of 2015, the Woods Hole Library has hosted this series of lectures and films all celebrating dance in America thanks to the generosity of former Woods Hole resident Nancy Norman Lassalle.
There are many rags to riches stories, but perhaps none so compelling as that of Steven Melendez, whose life story is at the heart of a new documentary film, LIFT. It will be screened at 7 pm, July 18, at the Woods Hole Public Library, in the lower level meeting room. Melendez will be in attendance.
The 2022 film, made by Academy Award nominated and PBS documentary filmmaker David Peterson, has been gathering “audience favorite” awards at film festivals across the country. Eleven years in the making, it follows the path of Melendez from his childhood in a homeless shelter in NYC, where he first began studying classical ballet, to his success as an elite professional dancer. Now Artistic Director of the New York Theatre Ballet and its associated LIFT outreach scholarship program, which gave him his start, Melendez is featured throughout the film working with disadvantaged children as he continues to struggle privately with memories of his own past. Revisiting his childhood was “impossibly difficult,” he admits, “more than I could ever have imagined.”
“David, the director, and I got into a lot of very heated discussions,” Melendez recalls, “about what he was and was not allowed to film. I was against him showing some of the reality of my story because I had spent a lot of my young career as a ballet dancer running away from it. I didn’t like being described in reviews as ‘the homeless ballet dancer from an outreach program.’ I was never sure if I was being critiqued for my dancing or for my story.”
Peterson began making the documentary just as Melendez was building his reputation internationally as a dancer. “Nobody in Japan, Estonia or South America where I was dancing knew anything about my background,” he says, “and I was nervous that the material in the film was somehow going to undo all the work I had done as a dancer.”
Then, because of injury, he had to stop dancing. Suddenly, he says, none of his worries mattered anymore. There were no more reviews coming, no more critics watching, and he realized his story might provide a role model for young people at risk. He began sharing private memories from his childhood with Peterson, even suggesting things to include in the film.
He admits to struggling even now with an identity question. “When I was younger, I was always trying to figure out, aside from being a homeless child, who I was. Then, in the classical ballet world I struggled with how to fit into a predominantly white ecosystem. Not only was I the only person of color in a lot of the organizations I worked in, I’m also a straight man, which a lot of people outside the ballet world find strange. I became really unsure of myself.” He believes one of the reasons he enjoyed ballet so much was that when he put on costumes and makeup, he knew exactly who the characters were that he was portraying onstage. “But when I’d come back to the dressing room, it was just me and the guy in the mirror. It was scary sometimes.”