The Business of Running an Arts Organization: Purelements Making Its Mark in East New York

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(Purelements co-founder Lakai Worrell)

In the past 50 years, African American men such as Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, Ronald K. Brown, Desmond Richardson & Dwight Rhoden, and others have opened dance companies that have thrived and changed communities. Count Kevin A. Joseph and Lakai Worrell among those visionaries.

In 2006, they launched Purelements: An Evolution in Dance, a cultural dance company based in East New York, Brooklyn, with the intent to expose children in their community to careers in the performing arts. “We opened the school because we wanted to create a space where youth could get a better opportunity to get receive quality training and programs like we did,” Worrell tells TNJ.com.

Dancing for over 30 years, Joseph and Worrell met when they were just starting out as hip-hop dancers. Through training at professional institutions and studying under professional dancers, they expanded and learned other forms of dance. Now, they are respected dancers, choreographers and stage artists and they have brought that talent to the forefront in the same community where they were born and raised.

Since then, their evolution in dance has led them to, ultimately, become the artistic directors they are today. Their career highlights include performing at the American Black Film Festival, Lincoln Center Outdoors, VH1 Divas and Live and PBS’s “Black Dance in the 20th Century;” and they have worked with artists such as famed tap choreographer/dancer Savion Glover, actress Phylicia Rashad, award-winning singer-songwriter Lauryn Hill, legendary actor Ossie Davis and James Stovall, among others.

And says Joseph, just for clarification, “Purelements is not just a dance school.” It is a full-service arts organization that not only offers Saturday classes of ballet, modern, jazz, African and hip-hop, but also vocal, musical theater, audition preparation and performance training.

In addition, they have large-scale partnerships on the table. This is where the unique factor comes in. “Aside from our dance school which offers Saturday classes from September through June, we, as an arts organization, have several partnerships with Department of Education schools; we are the recipient of an after-school program grant under Mayor Bill DeBlasio; and we have received grants that allow us to go into other schools and programs. We have a lot going on presently and are very busy most of the time!” Worrell says.

Like any business, being busy is usually good news. But that’’s not to say the duo didn’t face any challenges in getting the organization up and running.  “We dealt with all of it: funding, finding a location and getting the word out. But when we initially decided to forge ahead with Purelements, the biggest challenge was finding the space. We knew we would keep the tuition low and we didn’t know how many students would enroll. But, magically, a school called us and said they wanted to develop a summer arts program for their summer school students in the Bronx. That was such a rich program that we had enough money left over as a net to fund us for the rest of that year,” Joseph shares.

When asked how important the arts are to schools and to youth, Worrell responded, “How are the arts not important? When you talk about the arts, people sometimes limit it to what happens onstage during the performance when you’re watching the final product. But when you talk about the process of the arts, you have to talk about the development of the creative person, the creative entity; it’s about helping them to get connected to that part of themselves, which they can use in any area of life. The creative part of oneself allows you to face challenges and get out of a difficult situation by not accepting what may be presented before you and coming up with different ways you can approach it. So, we are always amused by that question and wonder why the arts isn’t being funded more and why it isn’t a standard across the nation.”

Adds Joseph, “Looking at the lens of the marriage of arts and education, we feel that it is so integral to the learning process. It’s an arts education – not arts and education as two separate entities. For us, this is how we learn, excel, and thrive. For kids in the typical classroom setting, some may need alternative methods of looking at the material, and 98 percent of the time, you need a creative solution.”

This is where Purelements and other organizations like it come in. According to researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles, students who are involved with the arts perform better on standardized achievement tests than students with low arts involvement. Yet, when budgets are tight, arts programs are often the first to be cut off from state funding.

For the guys’ part, the arts had a big impact on their artistic development. “While Brooklyn, N.Y., is home to us, Kevin “lega” Jeff of Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in Chicago, Illinois was hugely instrumental in our lives as being a really good mentor, instructor and teacher. He helped us understand the purpose of starting our organization,” notes Worrell.

He continues, “And of course, we always respect the Ailey crew. We have had teachers who have worked there and students who have gone through there. Just the Ailey legacy in itself has been important to setting the standard for dancers everywhere. We look to add to that pot of professional dancers.”

With 130 students enrolled at Purelements, they are well on their way. They even hope to one day have a big, state-of-the-art facility like the one on West 55th Street in Manhattan that is currently home to the Ailey Company.

But theirs will be in East New York. No doubt.