Lauren Carey’s path has taken her from Dreyfoos School of the Arts to The Juilliard School in New York and back to Palm Beach County, where she has made a lost dance company relevant again.
WEST PALM BEACH - Nothing seems atypical about the small white house on the corner of Westminster Road and South Olive Avenue.
The green shrubbery, orange-bricked driveway and tiled roof blends in with the neighborhood.
For it’s technically a home. But it’s far from typical.
A peek inside the window reveals there is no sofa or television in the living room. A solid gray floor and mirrored walls are there instead.
In the middle, stands Lauren Carey, a West Palm Beach native and Dreyfoos School of the Arts graduate. Her petite frame, clad in a black t-shirt and pants, elegantly moves with the soft hum of instrumental music.
She grew up in the house and refounded a dance company once lost, in the house.
"I like the charm of it," she said.
In 2014, then 25-year-old Carey, a Juilliard and New York University graduate, left New York to return to West Palm Beach and revive Ballet Florida, a company that was founded in 1985 but closed in 2009 due to a debt ranging in the millions.
Ballet Florida filed for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy that year, with assets and debts being listed in the $1 to $10 million range. The previous owner, friends and even the city of West Palm Beach attempted to keep the company alive. But years of poor budgeting and a less-than stellar economy ultimately led to its demise
Carey grew up at the old Ballet Florida. But she never thought she’d resurrect it.
With her father’s help, Carey renovated her childhood home into what would be the new Ballet Florida. The front two rooms were turned into one, properly sprung dance floors were installed and the equipment was purchased.
An entrepreneur, business owner and dancer, Carey, now 30, is the artistic director of Ballet Florida. She runs the show: teaching classes, choreographing pieces and continuing to dance with the company.
Her heart and home are now, literally, in the right place. Within the four walls, a once empty hole in the community is filled.
As of 2019, Ballet Florida is a "not for profit" organization and academy that teaches from age 3 to adults. There’s about 12 dancers in the professional company, 50 academy students and countless others — and Carey said it’s continuing to grow.
Making Ballet Florida a reality
Growing up in West Palm Beach, Carey didn’t imagine taking over Ballet Florida one day. She wanted to join a national dance company in a big city. Her summers were spent perfecting her craft at elite dance intensives such as American Ballet Theatre and Pacific Northwest Ballet.
After graduating from Dreyfoos School of the Arts, a renowned arts school, in 2007, she was one of 12 females and 12 males to be accepted into Juilliard for dance — a rate of acceptance similar to Ivy League universities.
She then went on to New York University to further her dance curriculum. A bit burnt out afterwards, Carey wasn’t sure she wanted to stay in New York. She was also traveling back and forth to Florida to teach at Dreyfoos during this time.
Then it dawned on her: The knowledge and experience she gained could be brought home. She knew she could fill a missing part of the community.
"I wanted to make Ballet Florida a reality," she said.
When asked how she juggles multiple roles in the company, Carey laughed.
"I’m still figuring it out, to be honest."
It’s a self-described balancing act — especially in the theatre.
She said it’s great to "exercise" her artistry muscle, as she is a "dancer first and business owner second." It’s a fun challenge to switch from dancing on stage to directing behind the scenes within a split second.
Company member Hayley Mertens, 22, said she’s always been impressed by Carey. The two knew each other growing up, dancing together and Carey eventually teaching Mertens at Dreyfoos. Mertens joined Ballet Florida about four years ago.
Mertens took inspiration from watching Carey explore her own path and grapple major life decisions, like whether to go to an elite company or stay and reach the community where she grew up. All of it nudged Mertens to take charge of her own career — just like Carey.
"To teach and pass on information, being able to share that with people around you... It’s really awesome," Mertens said.
It’s a daily routine Carey does hours on end. She opens the studio in the morning, teaches classes, meets parents, manages finances, thinks up choreography ideas and dances with the company. She even finds time to squeeze in extra teaching at the Harid Conservatory in Boca Raton.
An aspect of the original Ballet Florida Carey preserved was scholarship. Carey said dance is not a cheap sport; tuition, costumes, shoes — it adds up.
About half of Carey’s students are on a form of scholarship, but there isn’t a fixed number. Donations help keep the company thriving.
Families want their children to learn the art and movement structure, Carey said. It’s important to seek out children who will thrive in that environment.
Her teaching statement? "To share, with as many people as I can, what I know."
The creative process
As a teacher, Carey provides a strong, classical ballet education.
As an artistic director, Carey provides creativity for out-of-the-box performances.
The two intertwined ideologies don’t create a simple routine. It’s a living, breathing work of art.
When making repertoire for shows, Carey said she includes something for everyone. The goal is to leave people moved long after the curtains close.
"I like to create an evening of something that everyone can relate really specifically to," she said.
The inspiration is drawn from her own experiences. The most important piece Carey said she’s ever choreographed was one from two years ago, called "Vessel."
That month, both her grandmother and a close mentor died.
"It was a really raw time for me," she said.
It struck a realization in Carey. Her body, their bodies, everybody’s bodies, were just skeletons, or rather, a "vessel," for their souls.
Using five large scale bone sculptures, such as a rib cage, four dancers dressed in red circled, hugged and stretched across the stage. The instrumental music highlighted each motion.
Each breath and facial emulated pain, desire and wander — like silent actors in a play.
When people die, their spirit lives on but their "vessels" remain, Carey said.
"We’re left with just our bones and skin," she said. "It’s a tactile thing."
The future of Ballet Florida
As the years go by and Ballet Florida grows, Carey knows the small white house on the corner of the street will soon be outgrown.
This summer, Carey is spending a couple weeks in Italy to perform with other elite dancers. Her dancing career is still strong, and as long as her body allows it, she isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Carey isn’t sure where the studio will move to but she’s content with how far it’s come.
Her childhood home is perhaps a vessel itself. A vessel that restarted what was once lost in the community.
The white walls, gray marley floor and mirrored walls of a studio will continue to tell a story.
A story that’s told every time Carey teaches a class, choreographs a piece or steps onto the dance floor.
Wilkine Brutus contributed to this story.