The name “Byham” is forever linked with Pittsburgh’s cultural arts institutions, for Mt. Lebanon’s Bill and Carolyn Byham of DDI have generously supported theater, music and dance.
But unlike philanthropists who simply write checks, the Byhams are active in the organizations they support, encouraging the leadership to dream big, work smart and achieve their goals.
That was evident on a January evening when Carolyn, after a long day and heading for Iceland the next morning, took mtl on a tour of Byham House in Lawrenceville, home away from home to 19 students ages 14 to 18 who are students at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) School.
Carolyn is on PBT’s board. The Byhams’ lead gift along with a grant secured by state Sen. John Pippy allowed PBT to purchase and rehabilitate the 7,000-square-foot house, once the rectory for the former St. John the Baptist Church next door, now better known as the Church Brewery. The historic house is an easy seven-block walk to the PBT School on Liberty Avenue in the Strip.
The refurbished house is cheerful and colorful with sturdy furnishings donated by IKEA. The residents come from all over the United States. There are two students from Japan and—a coveted entity in the ballet world—five boys. All were selected through a rigorous audition process. “It’s very competitive,” says Carolyn, “although easier for the boys.”
A few students are on scholarship but most pay about $10,500 in tuition/room and board. They also pay for their practice attire and dance shoes—a dancer can go through a pair and a half of shoes a week, says Aimee Waeltz, of the PBT’s marketing department, a former PBT dancer whose career was ended by an ankle injury.
Students are reconsidered for the program each year, based on their commitment, their skill level, their academic performance and their behavior. Most will not end up dancing in the PBT company—there are not enough spots—but the training they are getting will give them a shot with a ballet company somewhere.
Resident Director Marchae Peters monitors their daily schedule, which includes dance class from 8 to 9:30 a.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. plus school work (most attend cyber school) and social activities. Peters, who holds a psychology degree from Seton Hill and master’s in counseling from Chatham, exudes warmth, humor and a dab of “Don’t mess with me,” a good combination for dealing with 19 talented but still typical teens. Aiding her is PBT grad student Alastair Mann, the resident advisor. There are house rules, including curfews and chores. The dancers generally get along, with bickering typically confined to fairly innocuous subjects such as who took whose space at the ballet barre.
Peters loves her job. “I get to take everything I learned and construct that into a program that goes to improve them occupationally, socially, spiritually and emotionally—to give them their best sense of self,” she says. A chart in the dining room illustrates one of her positive incentives. Students get volunteer points for helping others and doing extra chores. At the end of the year, whoever has the most points wins $100.
Byham House is a safe place that allows committed young performers a unique opportunity, Carolyn says: “A mother of a 14-year-old from Morgantown told me. ‘My daughter has always wanted to be a dancer, but I never would have considered it without Byham House.’”
On the evening we visited, two guys were hanging out in the TV room, waiting for the rest of the group to return from class for dinner, the only meal of the day that is prepared for them and the one time they gather together. David, 17, from Texas, is a former football player who got involved in school musical theater productions. When he was about 15, his teacher suggested he take a ballet class, and he found his calling, a time frame that admittedly would be nearly impossible for a young girl. Hunter, 15, from Orlando, Florida, was adopted from Vietnam at age 3. He started out in gymnastics and graduated to ballet. Neither boy had ever seen snow before this winter.
Hunter admitted it was hard for his parents to let him go. It was sad, he said, to leave his brother and three sisters behind: “But it was a great opportunity, and it is nice to have a few guys around who appreciate ballet.”
At dinner, Carolyn hugs some students she has met previously and introduces herself to others. A mother and grandmother, she clearly is concerned with the teens’ well being—even what’s on their dinner plates. Tonight it’s a great looking stew with plenty of vegetables prepared by Chef Matthias, former co-owner of Le Pommier on the South Side. Matthias, who also is a caterer and a private chef, is in charge of the shopping, menu planning and meal preparation.
Seeing the whole group around the table brings to mind Elton John’s song, Tiny Dancer. These teen are lithe, nimble and (especially the girls) tiny—an important consideration for Chef Matthias, for although dancers need to maintain a slim, graceful line, their young bodies are still growing and dancing requires boundless energy.
Matthias says he consulted with UPMC’s Health and Wellness and Sports Medicine departments to gauge what sort of nutrition is appropriate for dancer/athletes in this age range. His menus, which he publishes in advance and requests feedback on, are “high in proteins and vegetables with a happy mix of carbs.” There is a 24-hour salad bar, and the refrigerator is always stocked. Students make their own breakfasts and pack their lunches.
“That is probably what we should be eating,” Carolyn and I joked as we headed home.
We can’t teach you to dance, but we can share a couple of Chef Matthias’s healthy recipes. —firstname.lastname@example.org
RAGU DI FUNGHI
by Chef Matthias Bodnar
Serving of 4
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 ½ pound cremini or porcini mushrooms
1 bunch Italian Parsley, finely chopped
3/4 cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 tomato sauce, recipe follows below
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 Spanish onion, chopped in 1/4-inch dice
4 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tablespoon dried
1/2 medium carrot, finely shredded
2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole tomatoes, crushed by hand and juices reserved
Salt & Pepper
In a 3-quart saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft and light golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add the thyme and carrot and cook 5 minutes more, until the carrot is quite soft. Add the tomatoes and juice and bring to a boil, stirring often. Lower the heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add celery, onion and garlic; reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 7 minutes. Add mushrooms, parsley, broth, wine, and pinch salt and pepper; stir gently to combine. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook, stirring once or twice, until mushrooms are very tender. Add tomato sauce, reduce heat to very low and gently simmer, covered, stirring sauce occasionally, for 1 hour.
HEALTHIER CRANBERRY SAUCE
by Chef Matthias Bodnar
Ingredients: (Serving of 8. Total time 30 min.)
2 (8-ounce) packages of cranberries
2 fresh oranges to juice and zest
1 cup sugar in the raw
Pepper and Paprika to taste
Put all the ingredients into a sauce pan over medium heat and simmer until the cranberries burst and the sauce thickens, about 20 to 25 minutes. Serve at room temp. or cooled.