By Gordon Wright
“Dance has always been my first love,” he said.
To this day, I regret not asking why. Given its source, that simple statement remains highly significant. The source was Fred Lieberman, founder and benefactor of The HARID Conservatory. Unfortunately, I remain stumped as to how or why dance became Fred’s first love. And, I can no longer ask him; he passed away in 2008.
Fred Lieberman was born in Philadelphia in 1923, the youngest of eight children. After high school, he enrolled at the RCA Institute in New York and studied radio and television engineering. Following World War II, he worked as a field engineer for an electronics firm before starting his own cable-television company, Telesystems Service Corporation. With his partner, Jack Crosby, he built cable-TV systems throughout the eastern United States and founded a similar company, Telekable Swiss, in Switzerland.
Fred had a gift for business. He used his knowledge of the electronics and cable industry to develop projects including security systems for home and business, and a satellite-transmission service for sporting events. He also created Cable Guide, the first weekly magazine for cable TV, which reached a monthly circulation of seven million within three years.
In 1987, while a resident of Boca Raton, Florida, Lieberman made the bold decision to establish a new performing-arts conservatory. Being a native of Philadelphia, he was familiar with the renowned Curtis Institute of Music. Impressed by that institution’s history and mission, he chose it as a model for his new school. Admission would be highly selective and based solely on talent. And, like Curtis, the school would be tuition free for all students. Fred recognized and accepted that such an undertaking would require an enormous financial commitment on his part.
Jump ahead twenty-five years:
In May 2013, The HARID Conservatory celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary with a special series of performances at the Countess de Hoernle Theater in Boca Raton.
The performances included a selection of ballets from the classical repertoire showcasing the school’s graduating class, plus the premier of a new contemporary ballet created by Montreal-based choreographer, Mark Godden.
HARID has enjoyed a remarkable, twenty-year partnership with Godden. He has created eighteen original works for the school, beginning with Sarabande in 1992.
A number of HARID alumni appeared as guest artists in the performances as well. Joffrey Ballet dancers Matthew Adamczyk (HARID Class of 2003) and Mahallia Ward (Class of 2011) performed together, as did Royal Winnipeg Ballet principal dancer Amanda Green (Class of 2003) and her partner Tristan Dobrowney.
These accomplished artists are just a few of HARID’s notable alumni. Others include Amy Fote (Class of 1990), a celebrated principal dancer with Milwaukee Ballet and Houston Ballet; and 1998 graduates Katherine Lawrence, principal dancer with Ballet West, and Meredith Webster, a leading dancer with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet. In fact, hundreds of dancers have graduated from the school, and—over the years—more than eighty professional dance companies across the United States and in Canada, England, Europe, South America, and Asia have employed them.
Success came early at HARID.
The first students were enrolled in 1988. Jeannot B. Cerrone, a former company manager for both the Harkness Ballet and the Houston Ballet had been appointed managing director of dance. Anne and Nicholas Polajenko were hired as the first ballet instructors.
At that time, the school’s facilities were only architectural renderings, so spare classrooms were rented and converted into dance studios at the College of Boca Raton (now Lynn University). The dancers were housed in a nearby hotel and bussed to and from classes. Perhaps the most notable student from that inaugural year was Elizabeth Gaither, who went on to enjoy a successful career with American Ballet Theatre and then The Washington Ballet.
It was a tiny, young Brazilian student, however, who first put HARID on the map. Pollyana Ribeiro was admitted in the fall of 1989 and began studying under Marjorie Tallchief and Tina Santos-Wahl, who had replaced the Polajenkos as faculty members. Pollyana was a gifted dancer and she progressed quickly. In 1991, HARID sponsored her participation in the Helsinki International Ballet Competition, a prestigious event held in Finland. When Pollyanna was awarded the gold medal in the junior women’s category, everyone suddenly wanted to know about The HARID Conservatory. Pollyana later became a principal dancer with Boston Ballet. She is currently a faculty member at the school of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Others soon followed. While enrolled at HARID in 1992, Havana-born Riolama Lorenzo was awarded a Princess Grace Award. She then moved to New York City to spend time at School of American Ballet before joining the New York City Ballet. Riolama recently retired after a celebrated career as principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet.
The school’s facilities, built on a picturesque, five-acre campus, were completed in 1991. The new dance studios, administrative offices, and student residence hall were spacious and well equipped. There were few excuses for not accomplishing more good work.
In January, 1992, I became HARID’s new director of dance. (Sadly, Jeannot Cerrone had passed away from illness the previous spring.) I moved my family to South Florida from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I had been working at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet—first as a dancer, and then as a teacher and administrator—for many years.
Not long after joining HARID, I received a videotape of a young female dancer from Brazil. The girl hoped to be admitted to HARID, but I was not sufficiently impressed. What did catch my eye, however, was a young man seen partnering the girl in several of the videotaped exercises. I discretely contacted the students’ teacher in Brazil and learned that the boy’s name was Marcelo Gomes. At the time, he was only twelve years old and too young for our school.
A year later, Gomes arrived in Boca Raton and began his studies at HARID. Three years later, he had completed the curriculum. Marcelo had expressed interest in the Prix de Lausanne international ballet competition in Switzerland, so plans were made for him to participate. His talent was quickly acknowledged at the Prix and he was awarded the Hope Prize, plus a scholarship to spend a year at the Paris Opera Ballet School. Afterward, he joined American Ballet Theatre and quickly made his mark on the company. Today, Gomes is one of the world’s most-acclaimed male dancers.
In 1997, an extraordinary young dancer from South Carolina, Lyn Tally, followed in Gomes’ footsteps to the Prix de Lausanne. There, she received the Professional Prize. (She had been awarded a Princess Grace Award the year before.) Lyn became a soloist with Boston Ballet.
Sara Webb graduated from HARID around the same time, as did James Sofranko and Helen Hansen. Webb joined the Houston Ballet where she continues to perform as a principal dancer. Sofranko and Hansen chose to earn degrees from The Juilliard School before entering the field. Jim is now a soloist with San Francisco Ballet; Helen has enjoyed a wonderful career as a modern dancer with the Buglisi Dance Company in New York City.
Fred Lieberman was adamantly opposed to being recognized for his philanthropic deeds. During the two decades he all-but-single-handedly funded The HARID Conservatory, only a handful of people knew what he was up to. Lieberman had asked a trio of trusted attorneys—James Hankins, Arthur Redgrave, and Paul Rugo—to help him establish the school and act as its trustees. From the beginning, he set for them a hard and fast rule: he was to remain anonymous. As a result, Fred was carefully referred to simply as “the Donor”.
Fred’s identity was always an intriguing mystery to the staff, faculty, and students. He seldom set foot on the campus and, when he did, he took great care to hide his identity. (His code name amongst the trustees and senior management became “Mr. Lemon”.) One year, the dance students convinced themselves that the fellow who trimmed the campus lawn each week on a riding mower was, in fact, the Donor. They were impressed by his sneaky method of keeping an eye on things!
Fred was, in fact, quite a character. And, he had an impish sense of humor. Once, following a particularly engaging HARID performance, a letter arrived at the student residence hall. It praised and thanked the dancers for their wonderful work and was signed, “The Shadow”.
For someone who gave so much to the young artists fortunate enough to be admitted to HARID, Fred’s desire for anonymity was noble and selfless. At times, however, it was painful and lonely as well.
In 2000, Fred’s long-time partner, Carol Russo, unexpectedly passed away after developing complications following surgery. The thought that he might outlive Carol had simply never occurred to him. The man was devastated by her death.
In an effort to acknowledge Carol in some meaningful way, HARID’s trustees decided to name the school’s student residence hall in her honor and memory. A special ceremony was planned and everyone gathered in front of the residence to dedicate the building. A speech was given, the new lettering above the entryway was unveiled, and everyone applauded. No one noticed the lone, sad individual observing the ceremony from a bench at the far end of the campus courtyard. He was gone before anyone stood and turned around.
Over the years, aspiring young dancers have been attracted to HARID from around the world. Students have enrolled from all regions of the United States, and from Brazil, Canada, China, Ecuador, England, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, Philippines, and Ukraine. The place has become a mini United Nations of Dance!
The list of alumni who have distinguished themselves goes on: Bridgett Zehr, from Sarasota, Florida, graduated in 2002 and then joined Houston Ballet. She later became a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada before signing on with the English National Ballet where she is also a principal. Ashley Laracey (Class of 2001) was recently promoted to soloist at the New York City Ballet. Megan Gray, a 2004 graduate, danced with Boston Ballet before crossing the Atlantic to become a soloist with The Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam.
Dancers may be born with talent, but it takes great teachers to develop the strength, technique, discipline, and culture necessary to transform talent into classical ballet. The HARID Conservatory’s achievements, to a great extent, are due to the expertise and stability of its faculty—especially Victoria Schneider, Svetlana Osiyeva, and Meelis Pakri. By employing real expertise gained through years of pedagogical study, and stubbornly maintaining high standards and expectations, HARID’s faculty consistently produces dancers who achieve success in an intensely competitive global job market.
Further examples of such success include Isabella Boylston (2005), principal with American Ballet Theatre; and Adam Still (2006), soloist with Colorado Ballet. And, some recent graduates worth keeping an eye on are Amanda Dos Santos (2012) at the Joffrey Ballet, Alexandre Barros (2011) at the Atlanta Ballet, Sun Jia (2011) at Dresden Ballet in Germany, and Cavan Conley (2012) at Tulsa Ballet.
Fred Lieberman left us in 2008. He is missed but he will never be forgotten. The gift he gave HARID’s students and the dance world is immeasurable. What value can one attach to hundreds of artistically rewarding careers? Or thousands of inspiring performances delivered on numerous continents around the world? Fred made these remarkable things possible and he continues to do so.
In addition to funding the school’s operation for two decades, Fred established an endowment fund that he hoped would sustain HARID in perpetuity. Toward the end of his life, he seemed anxious to fulfill this commitment, as if he somehow knew his time was limited. He came close. While the sum of his personal contributions is staggering, HARID will need to secure its future by raising additional funds in the years ahead.
I will likely never know why dance was Fred Lieberman’s first love. But, I have learned the answer to another secret he held dear for twenty years: why he called the wonderful school he founded “HARID”. And, having known Fred, the answer makes simple and perfect sense. He named it in honor of Harry and Ida, his beloved parents.