Three young New York ballet dancers get the spotlight in David Petersen’s new documentary, “Lift.” Filmed over 10 years, it focuses on the dancer-choreographer Steven Melendez. He grew up in the Bronx and learned ballet while moving in and out of the city’s shelter system. He came back to teach share what he had learned by conducting a workshop for underserved young people.
The impressive time span allows the film to follow Victor Abreu, Yolanssie Cardona and Sharia Blockwood as they grow into promising young ballet stars while facing the challenges of poverty and housing insecurity. Melendez, the artistic director of New York Theater Ballet, sees himself in the struggles of his students. He’s visibly retraumatized when he first returns to the shelter where he grew up, and where he teaches the workshop. But over the years, we see this personal history help Melendez connect with his students as they go through trials he knows well.
Petersen’s bare-bones, on-the-ground production works well for a story like this, highlighting how vital these small workshops in homeless shelters and community centers can be. There’s a motif of buzzing into locked buildings — a familiar noise to any New Yorker — and close-up shots of barbed-wire fences outside the shelter where the kids practice. Those surroundings stand in obvious contrast to the dance classes inside, where Melendez encourages students to mold the rarefied art of ballet into something of their own making.
Rated PG-13 for language. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. In theaters.