Leaps and bounds — Patel Conservatory celebrates a decade at the Straz

Ten years old this week, the Patel Conservatory of the Arts is still growing strong.

click to enlarge LINE READING: Students at B.C. Graham Elementary go over their scripts for a Patel Troupe holiday show. - Julie Garisto
Julie Garisto
LINE READING: Students at B.C. Graham Elementary go over their scripts for a Patel Troupe holiday show.

It’s a mild December afternoon in Tampa, and sunlight beams through open windows at B.C. Graham Elementary School in the historic Riverside Heights neighborhood. Ami Sallee, Patel Conservatory adjunct teacher and former theater department chair, has gathered 23 students in a semi-circle with scripts in hand, rehearsing a short play about the ever-present seasonal tune “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.”

“Not that song again!” harrumphs a third-grader named Cheniya, reading from her script. Sallee praises Cheniya for her expert inflection.

“You all wrote a play!” Sallee congratulates the class. The second-through-fifth graders wearing red polos — several who have difficulties reading at all — will perform their collectively written work at a holiday show on Dec. 18.

The sessions are inspiring to ESOL resource teacher Debbie Allan. Each week she and the students look forward to the afterschool sessions known as the Patel Troupe, a program for students with a wide spectrum of emotional and
academic challenges.

Sallee will also teach improv to children temporarily residing at Metropolitan Ministries this spring. Patel has an outreach program there, in addition to providing instruction and resources to a host of schools and facilities throughout Hillsborough County. According to conservatory spokesperson Leslie Farrell, the programs at Graham and MetMin are part of a community partnership program that provides quality arts education to disadvantaged K-12 students in Title I schools and service agencies. More than 5,000 students participate each year.

In only one decade, the Patel has grown far beyond the walls of its home at the Straz.

click to enlarge A NEW DECADE: Patel Conservatory Managing Director Brad Casey and Straz President Judy Lisi. - chip weiner
chip weiner
A NEW DECADE: Patel Conservatory Managing Director Brad Casey and Straz President Judy Lisi.

Ten years ago, on Dec. 4, 2004, the Dr. Pallavi Patel Performing Arts Conservatory began a new era at the 27-year-old Straz Center. In addition to its community outreach programs, the conservatory awards more than $1.6 million in scholarships to 3,100-plus students who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to attend the ballet, tap, acting, jazz, orchestra, Rock School, private-instruction classes and summer camps at the Patel.

The three-story, 45,000-square-foot building — made possible by a $5 million donation for construction by Drs. Kiran and Pallavi Patel — is home to a culture in which students and teachers work arduous hours, bond, grow, leave the roost and often return. Straz President Judy Lisi has promoted artistic freedom and growth for both Patel’s teachers and artists, involving other staffers at the Straz and visiting performers. Broadway tap dancer Savion Glover will perform at the Straz on Feb. 26 and has agreed to give a master class while he’s here.

“Our students have come a long way, but the truth is we had no model for doing this,” Lisi said. “We’ve been learning how to do this for the past 10 years.”

click to enlarge RAISING THE BAR: Patel Dance Dept. chair Peter Stark with students Makayla Dorris and Ryan Ward. - chip weiner
chip weiner
RAISING THE BAR: Patel Dance Dept. chair Peter Stark with students Makayla Dorris and Ryan Ward.

The dance program is the school’s biggest claim to fame. Patel’s pre-professional ballet company, Next Generation Ballet, began in 2009 and has been named Outstanding School in 2011 and 2014 by the Youth America Grand Prix (YAGP). NGB attracts students nationwide and some internationally, mostly thanks to Artistic Director/Dance Chair Peter Stark, named “Outstanding Teacher” in 2014 by YAGP.
Lisi said one of Patel’s goals for the next decade is to create the same sequential learning standard with its music and theater programs.

Ashlyn Bolton grew up attending the Patel’s dance programs in an annex building in the Channelside District, months before the new facility opened at the Straz.

“It’s my home away from home,” she says of the Conservatory.

Having done everything from performing in The Nutcracker to helping sort toys for the Patel’s homeless outreach with MetMin, Bolton continues to take classes at the Patel on a semi-regular basis. Now 18, she was 7 when her mother started shuttling her (and later, sister Emma) from their Brooksville home four to six days a week. Dinners were prepared ahead of time and eaten on the benches outside.

“More than anything, in the heart of it all, the constant has been life at Patel,” mom Kim Bolton wrote in an email to CL. “We have traveled up and down the coast, been at many studios and stages, and I can tell you it is a special place. It is not just a building with rooms and people who teach, but a place with heart with people who care.”

At 13, Ashlyn qualified for a Rockettes summer intensive (the youngest in her troupe with women as old as 32) and has attended every year since. She’s also performed in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Actor and Patel student Shelby Ronea has begun to see her star rise, too. After studying with established actor Eugenie Bondurant (see this week’s Ask the Locals), Ronea co-starred with Haley Joel Osment in the Tampa-shot Sex Ed.

According to a story in the Tampa Tribune last summer, Bondurant recommended Shelby for two weeks of intensive training at Second City, where she received a scholarship to attend. “She’s a great coach — words cannot describe how she changed my life,” Shelby said of Bondurant. “She reassured me that I could act.”

Patel’s music programs have also nurtured some promising talents. The Guatemalan Quixtan Brothers, featured in our 25 & Under issue last year, play jazz standards like “Body and Soul” and “Autumn Leaves,” and have performed at venues in Lakeland and Brandon.

Disclaimer: I myself have a little slot etched in the Patel’s timeline. I worked there as a marketing coordinator when it first opened and had the privilege of seeing its Rock School get off the ground. It gave me immeasurable joy to see grade-school kids learn “Train in Vain” by The Clash, and I coined the name of the program’s annual concert, Rock School Blowout. Multi-instrumentalist and teacher Lee Ahlin molded the rock band class into one of the most fun and comprehensive offerings at the Conservatory.

Ahlin, who taught for seven years, has since left. More recently music director Daniel Powell, who joined Patel in 2012, has enlisted the help of instructor Sharon Graham for a music therapy program aimed at children with emotional and cognitive challenges.

Managing Director Brad Casey joined the staff last summer. The Tampa native and University of Florida grad has lived off and on in Atlanta over the past decade. He first visited the Straz when he was 12, to see The Taming of the Shrew by a touring troupe at Ferguson Hall, and visited the Patel in recent years as a consultant to help streamline planning and administration. In addition to implementing an online student registration this year, Casey also sits on Jobsite Theater’s board.

He follows former VP of Education and Conservatory Director Wendy Leigh, who left after achieving some notable milestones. Under her purview in 2012, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement accredited the Patel Conservatory, allowing students to get credit at their middle and high schools for classes taken at the Patel.

“It was exciting to see that gold seal of approval,” Leigh said during a phone conversation with CL. When asked why she left, she said she had resigned “on very good terms.” She went on to say that she had been working for Straz and other people for three decades and felt it was time to branch out on her own — but she’s still looking for that next great challenge to tackle.

Leigh credited former Vice President of Education and Outreach Fred Johnson with instilling a pioneering spirit in the school. “Fred Johnson is a charismatic, inspirational artist, singer and jazz percussionist, teacher and leader. One of the more memorable things Fred did was ‘play’ the building. On one of the opening events [in 2003], when the building was just steel beams and concrete floors, and plywood still surrounded the building, Fred used a hammer and played percussion on the beams and sang an ‘on the spot’ original song — wearing a hard hat!”

Johnson also originated the Community Arts Ensemble, which was the basis for the Patel’s’ scholarship program. He also taught and started the jazz program.

“He was committed to the community and I was happy to take his vision and great work and expand it to where it is today,” Leigh added. “Patel has more than 30 partnerships. Now, with Tina James [education programs manager]), it is in awesome hands.”

During her tenure, Leigh was a consummate creative, a firebrand bursting with new ideas and expert at making connections. Lisi praised her “guerrilla tactics” in getting Straz headliners like George Hamilton, Itzhak Perlman and Lewis Black to teach master classes. Casey, with a more subdued creative edge, is the strategist who will further extend the Patel’s growth and reach into the community.

“You should come here during the summer camps,” added Casey. “We’re overflowing into the lobbies!”

Upcoming events featuring Patel Conservatory Students

Jazz Jam Led by instructor Matt Weihmuller, Patel Conservatory jazz students and professional artist-educators will perform some swinging’ favorites popularized by jazz legends John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley.
Fri., Dec 5, at 6:30 p.m. Teco Theater, Tampa. $10. patelconservatory.org

click to enlarge THAT'S A WRAP: Noelle Miller, 14, and Makayla Dorris, 12. - chip weiner
chip weiner
THAT'S A WRAP: Noelle Miller, 14, and Makayla Dorris, 12.

Holidays Around the World
Students from the vocal and instrumental music programs will showcase their talent in this beautiful holiday performance. Special holiday desserts and treats are included in the ticket price. Wed., Dec. 10, 6:30 p.m. Jaeb Theater at the Straz Center, Tampa. $25. patelconservatory.org.

Winter Fantasy A Holiday treat featuring classic music and themes to get you in the spirit of the season. Sat., Dec. 20, 7:30 p.m. Jaeb Theater at the Straz, Tampa. $25. patelconservatory.org.

Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker Internationally renowned guest artists perform along with the award-winning dancers of Next Generation Ballet and a cast of nearly 175 dancers, gymnasts and other guest artists. Choreographed by NGB Artistic Director Peter Stark, the production has “marvelous” costumes “with inventive, whimsical touches” (Tampa Bay Times). From the moment the lights dim, audiences are transported to a magical place filled with marching toy soldiers, a growing Christmas tree, giant mice and crystalline waltzing snowflakes (one played by Emma Bolton, who’s mentioned in the adjacent story). Sat., Dec. 13, 2 and 7 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 14, 2 p.m. Straz Center’s Morsani Hall, Tampa. 813-229-7827. strazcenter.org.

Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow Gala 2015 The crown jewel of dance galas returns for a sparkling, spectacular evening featuring star dancers from the world’s best companies and the award-winning wunderkinds from Youth America Grand Prix — the largest international student ballet competition. Be sure to be there as the who’s who and who-will-be-who gather on stage at Morsani Hall in this unforgettable evening of dance virtuosity. A must-do event for anyone interested in dance, especially for students and their families. Sat., Jan. 10, 8 p.m. Straz Center, Tampa. 813-229-7827. strazcenter.org.

Patel Conservatory 10th Anniversary Spotlight Celebration  Celebrate Patel’s decade at an evening showcase featuring students in dance, music and theater. $10, Ferguson Hall of the Straz Center, Tampa. Wed., Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. 813-229-7827. patelconservatory.org.

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