New ballet school takes over space left by failed dance group

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In May, Victoria Lyras surveyed an expanse of open floor and sweeping views of downtown and yielded to an impulse unusual for someone evaluating whether to rent commercial space.

"I walked into those studios and I started leaping," recalls Lyras, a dancer who chose the Capitol Avenue site for her newly created Indianapolis School of Ballet. "I felt the energy. You look out those windows. How could you not want to dance there?"

Lyras, 47, began classes Aug. 21 in 10,500-square-foot quarters that previously housed Ballet Internationale's Clara R. Noyes Academy, which closed in November because of financial problems. ISB has 20 students so far.

Even as Lyras calls the school a dream fulfilled, she also describes it as "a personal leap of faith."

"It's one I've taken because I believe in the art form," Lyras said. "I believe in this community. And I strongly believe downtown should have a ballet school."

Running a not-for-profit will be a new challenge for Lyras, who comes to the job with a long list of accomplishments in her field.

After completing studies at the School of American Ballet and an apprenticeship with the Pennsylvania Ballet, Lyras joined the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1977.

For seven years, she danced with the company, rising from soloist to principal roles. In 1984, she became a free-lance guest artist, choreographer and master teacher.

Three years ago, she moved from New York to Indianapolis, following her mother and brother, pianist Panayis Lyras, then artist-in-residence at Butler University.

After the professional company Ballet Internationale folded last year, taking its Noyes Academy with it, Lyras began pursuing her longtime dream of starting her own ballet school.

"It was very sad, but it made me start thinking: I live in this community. This is what I love to do. I just made the decision."

Retired businessman Karl Zimmer, an ISB board member, is impressed with Lyras' initiative.

"Vicky is very entrepreneurial," said Zimmer, who owned locally based Zimmer Paper Products for more than three decades. "That should be applauded–that this person from out of town comes into our community and makes some very daring moves with risks."

Starting the school cost in the "five figures," Lyras said. She said seed money came from her personal savings and contributions from family.

After initial market research confirmed the viability of the project, Lyras said, she contacted Indianapolis arts patron Lorraine Price for guidance.

"One reason I have such confidence in this project is because Vicky is one of [the] people I know who functions out of both sides of her brain," said Price, a real estate agent with Sycamore Group Realtors who joined the school's board. "She's an artist. Yet she knows where every cent goes."

Early on, Price suggested Lyras explore putting the school in the Athenaeum. It didn't have space available. But Phil Watts, the Athenaeum Foundation's president, was impressed by Lyras' enthusiasm. He joined the board and began helping her write a business plan.

"One thing that pleased me was, instead of running out to Carmel or other suburban areas, she wanted to do something in the center of the city," Watts said.

In June, at a court-ordered public auction of the defunct Ballet Internationale's assets, Lyras bought her school four pianos and office equipment.

The next month, Lyras signed a three-year lease for the Capitol Avenue space and began tackling the grueling work of renovation, most of which she and her family completed themselves.

"Wielding a hammer-drill brought me about back to my original dancing weight," she laughed.

The Indianapolis School of Ballet offers a children's program for ages 4 to 7, a "preprofessional program" for ages 7 to young adult, and an open-dance program for ages 13 to adult. Lyras and four other instructors teach tap, jazz, character dance and ballroom styles.

Tracy Berry said she drives her 12-year-old daughter, Emma, from Bloomington to Indianapolis four times a week to study at the new school.

"Victoria has an amazing background, but she also has an ability to teach," Berry said. "She has real warmth. And, as a parent, I love her because she sees part of her job as talking to the parents.

"There's a downside of dancing: the weight issues, and people can say cruel things. That's not Victoria's mode. Emma is with her teacher more hours a week than she's with me. If I have to have my daughter gone so much, I want her in a really positive atmosphere."

Lyras' mentor, Barbara Weisberger, founder and former artistic director of the Pennsylvania Ballet, said her own mentor, choreographer George Balanchine, emphasized the importance of education to carry on the art form.

"Balanchine's famous words were, 'First, a school,'" Weisberger, 80, recalled from her home in Kingston, Pa. "Vicky's now in that line, and she has the talent, drive and intelligence to succeed."

Lyras said she feels that obligation to pass on what she has learned.

But she knows the long-term viability of the school will depend on sound management.

She said her short-term goal is to build an enrollment of at least 125 while seeking corporate and other sponsors.

"My goal is to create a solid business foundation," Lyras said. "The art form needs and deserves the stability of sound business practices."

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