If you go
› What: “From the Streets to the Stage: The Journey of Fredrick Davis”
› Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
› When: 5 p.m. Monday
› Admission: Free, but tickets required. No one will be admitted without a ticket.
› For tickets: 423-702-7804 or streetstostage film.org
Fred Davis stood before directors of Chattanooga's recreation centers this week to impress upon them the importance of the arts in children's lives.
He should know, he speaks from experience. His introduction to dance through a summer recreation center program changed his life. Learning to dance lifted him from poverty in East Chattanooga's projects to a professional ballet career with New York's Joffrey Ballet and then Dance Theatre of Harlem.
"I was in such poverty for five years and not having much," says Davis, now 29. "It's amazing how everything has transpired."
His inspiring story is the topic of a new documentary, "From the Streets to the Stage: The Journey of Fredrick Davis," which will be screened in a free premiere on Monday at 5 p.m. in the Tivoli Theatre. The documentary is the creation of Ann Cater, WTCI-PBS director of corporate support, and was filmed by WTCI's production team. Its original score was composed by Chattanoogan Tim Hinck.
"When Ann Cater approached me to do this documentary, I almost broke out in tears," says Davis. "Before she died, my grandmother would always talk to me about doing this, that she thought my life would make a great story. People tell you things are possible, things may happen, but I never thought there would be a story of my life."
Davis says filming began last July, lasting six months and spanning five states. The filmmakers followed his daily life from eating breakfast in his Harlem apartment, to classes and rehearsals, even accompanying him on the road to film his performances in other states.
His story of perseverance is one his former dance instructors, teachers and recreation center directors are proud to share with their current students.
Center for Creative Arts Principal Deborah Smith says more than 400 students from CCA, of which Davis is a graduate, will attend Monday's premiere. Davis makes frequent trips back to his high school to perform and lead master classes.
"We have reserved a block of seats for the students, have organized transportation and are going to caravan to the Tivoli in school buses," says Smith of Monday's field trip. "That's how much it means to us. Fred set the bar for so many students who think their dreams can't come true. He epitomizes everything our school is about. We're proud of him and proud that Chattanooga's premier arts school was part of the foundation that got him where he needed to be in life."
In previous interviews with the Times Free Press, Davis described his childhood as "traumatic."
"I grew up with nothing. I didn't have an 'official' place to stay. I bounced around a lot. I remember getting meals at the Community Kitchen. We had no money," he said.
At age 11, his grandmother, the late Evie Dill, took him in, which Davis says "saved him." She lived across Fourth Street from East Lake Courts.
Davis says she saw to it that he spent his free hours of summer doing something constructive at East Lake Recreation Center, and she got him involved in her church, Pilgrim Congregational. When she realized her health was failing and she wouldn't live to see him graduate high school, Davis says she talked to John Mingus Sr., then the pastor at Pilgrim Congregational, about what would happen to her grandson. Mingus took him in after she died.
Davis credits Sid Hearn, then East Lake center director, for encouraging him to give dance a try when Ballet Tennessee held auditions in 1998 for Dance Alive, its annual summer program that offers lessons to children in the city's recreation centers. Davis was 11 at the time.
"Sid told me about the audition, said I should give it a shot. He knew my past, knew I was looking for inspiration. I was looking to get into sports, but didn't have the money sports required. So I did the audition with no expectations," Davis recalls.
"When I told my grandmother I was interested, she didn't believe me at first. But she said, 'Alright, we'll give it a shot.' Dancing definitely opened my eyes to something new. But I didn't really see myself dancing on a stage with other dancers," he says.
But Ballet Tennessee founders Barry and Anna VanCura did.
"He was a young male who was interested in doing this. We saw his interest even though he didn't really know what it was about or what might be expected of him," says Anna VanCura. "He was there and he was interested.
"Secondly, he tried so hard. He had such a determination that spoke volumes to us. He was trying something for the first time and was willing to keep working on whatever it was we wanted from him until he could achieve it.
We saw there was an elegance and a grace about him that was just there, even when he did not yet know how to make the classical form. That was pretty amazing and outstanding," she recalls.
The VanCuras awarded Davis a Talent Identification Program Scholarship, which funded tuition for further study at their dance school. He continued to study with them while he was a student at the performing arts magnet school.
"He had the raw talent, the interest and the spark," says Karen Wilson, dance instructor at CCA. "When I met him in the eighth grade, one of the first things he ever said to me was that he wanted to dance with the Dance Theatre of Harlem one day."
When Davis graduated from CCA, the VanCuras helped him win an audition for a scholarship with the Joffrey Ballet School. His grandmother's church took up a collection to fund his first year in New York City. When that ran out, he worked as a waiter, model, salesman, even cleaned a house in Brooklyn in exchange for a room there.
Davis trained three years with Joffrey. During that time he studied in summer intensives with American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre and more. Yet he always made time to return to Ballet Tennessee to teach.
After dancing with the Roxey Ballet Company in New Jersey for a season, he won a place in the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 2008.
In the years since, he has participated in a Dance for America tour, was a featured artist with Dallas Black Dance Theatre, performed at the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C., the Donald McKayle Tribute in Irvine, Calif., and for the Indiana Ballet Theatre.
He now calls himself "a full-time freelancer," working as his own agent. He's a performer, choreographer and coach while taking classes for himself in ballet and modern dance, yoga and Pilates. The latter two are part of his workout to build stamina before starting his tour, he explains. That demanding schedule starts the third week of October in Washington, D.C., where he will perform with the Dissonance Dance Theatre. The next week he is dancing in "Dracula" with the Roanoke, Va., Ballet Theater.
The following week he will dance the role of the Prince in "Snow White" with the San Antonio Metropolitan Ballet. Each week for the remainder of the year he is booked in the "Nutcracker" with dance companies in East Point, Ga., Bedford, N.H., and Boston.
In the documentary, Davis says his grandmother once told him, "You have to see these experiences you went through as a blessing. Then you have to make a decision who you really want to be in life: whether you want to be against society or rise to the occasion and be greater and inspire others. And I made that decision."
That's the story the audience will see Monday in "From the Streets to the Stage."
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.