Over the 23 years that Leslie Nolte has run her Iowa City–based performing arts school, Nolte Academy, she has noticed a trend: During their teenage years, many of her most dedicated students moved out of state to attend residential, pre-professional programs—including Nolte’s daughter, who joined Houston Ballet Academy’s professional program at age 14. “I realized our community had all of these assets and advantages,” says Nolte, noting the support system, availability of square footage and location. “I knew we could build a school here.”
Nolte joined forces with arts educator and educational psychologist Dr. Beth Brown, and for 10 years the two have been working side by side to bring their dream to life. In August 2023, ICON Arts Academy will open its doors to its first students. With Nolte as executive and artistic director and Brown as curriculum and instruction director, they’ll realize their vision of a project-based interdisciplinary performing-arts residential high school in Iowa City.
“Flipping the Model”
ICON Arts Academy plans to enroll up to 140 students for its inaugural year, gradually expanding to fill its 325-student capacity. ICON students will choose one of four majors: dance, theatre arts, music, and visual arts/design & production. While the school will be ripe with opportunities for cross-disciplinary study and collaboration, each department’s curriculum has been thoughtfully developed to ensure participants are getting the necessary technical training and skill-building to succeed in their fields.
“Our curriculum is putting the arts first, but it’s not taking away the academics,” explains Nolte. “It’s flipping the model.” Building on Brown’s 20-year relationship with the Iowa City School District, ICON students will enroll in an online public high school program. ICON’s daily schedule will include blocks of time set aside for both synchronous and asynchronous learning aided by guidance counselors and college-aged learning coaches in ICON’s library. “Not only do we want to give students the opportunity to reach their dreams to be a professional on a performing arts stage, but we also want students to have a high school experience that keeps them strong and whole, even if what they want is to become a scientist or a math teacher,” says Nolte.
After honing its online offerings during the pandemic, the Iowa City School District is poised to offer individualized courses of study to ICON students, depending on their academic goals. “Our district is really creative and innovative, and they are interested in providing opportunities that aren’t exactly the same way they’ve always been done,” says Brown, emphasizing that Advanced Placement classes will also be available. “It’s really wonderful that we can have the academic rigor, and, at the same time, it can be completely sculpted to the learner’s needs.”
Well-Rounded Dance Offerings
Dance students at ICON will have the choice to pursue a classical or contemporary track. The school’s ballet mistress, Ingrid Lozano, comes to Iowa from Miami. The remainder of the permanent dance positions are currently being filled, although each semester will feature a number of guest artists introducing specific forms and repertoire; ICON is eager to welcome Mark Morris Dance Group’s Brandon Cournay and Martha Graham Dance Company’s Lloyd Knight as guest artists. “We’re very much into mindfulness and the whole self,” says Nolte when describing ICON’s dance curriculum. Each day will start with yoga or Pilates (the school is building a Pilates studio complete with a reformer, stability chair, spring wall and cadillac). Next, students will take an hour and 45 minutes of ballet. “We will be offering different levels,” says Nolte. “We’ll have ballet classes for 14-year-olds who would like to be at the School of American Ballet by 16, and for contemporary dancers who don’t want to do a full pointe class.”
Additional classical offerings will include pointe technique, pas de deux and variations. Contemporary dancers will take classical modern technique in the Limón and Horton techniques, as well as lyrical forms. “We’ll include the contemporary trends seen more at dance competitions, but align them based out of classical modern and ballet techniques,” says Nolte. To that end, dancers will have the choice to participate in Youth America Grand Prix or other competitions, but concert dance will firmly remain the focus of ICON’s dance department. The dance curriculum will also include dance history, kinesiology, anatomy, composition, stage management and producing, as well as tap and jazz classes offered through the musical theater department.
“Something that’s unique at ICON is that we understand that dancers require that daily technique and strength building in order to become really great at their craft,” explains Brown. “At the same time, we want our dancers to be ready for today’s world, where there’s a lot of self-production and collaboration.” One benefit of being a new school is that the department can grow along with its students. “We don’t have these hard edges and borders,” says Nolte. “We’re looking at our student base and bringing to them what it is they need or want.” The ICON team plans to bring in heritage dance specialists, depending on the students’ backgrounds, and hopes dancers will discover parallel passions in disciplines like singing or playwriting. Students will regularly work across departments to put on productions and create their own work. “Project-based learning is a learner-centered approach,” says Brown. “Everything the students encounter is going to be an authentic experience in relationship to whatever the expertise is we’re trying to build.”
ICON’s campus is housed in north Iowa City, split between a theater and a school building just one block apart. Residential students will live together in nearby apartment-style housing with chaperones on an 8:1 or 12:1 ratio, depending on the students’ ages. ICON’s student life director and her team have been working tirelessly to make sure that ICON’s trademark sense of care and creativity extend far beyond the studio. When it comes to student life, ICON recognizes first and foremost the importance of safety, as well as teaching students about independence, nutrition, mental health and physical health, says Nolte. “We are aiming to solve the problems adolescents face by way of our support system, before they happen.” That approach will include a weekly student check-in with a school guidance counselor, daily connection with their residential chaperone and access to mental health professionals through the student life team as needed. A physical therapist will also be available on site a few days a week. “We have the capacity within the University of Iowa campus to get them anything they need,” says Nolte, adding that excellent hospitals and clinics are just a few minutes’ drive away from campus. “We’re really keeping on top of every student’s emotional life at the school,” adds Brown.
Breakfast and lunch will be delivered by the Iowa City School District each day, and ICON is also partnering with 15 local restaurants and grocery stores, as well as a cooking school, which will aid students in learning basic skills, like how to boil eggs or bake chicken. The student life team is eager to integrate ICON’s students into life in Iowa City, sharing the city’s range of cultural offerings. “We’re the first performing arts boarding school in the state of Iowa,” says Nolte. “We know the risks involved, and we understand what it’s going to take to get families to not only trust us, but really celebrate us.”
How to Audition
Fifteen-year-old Iowa City-native Lizzie Matthes has been dancing at Nolte Academy since she was 3 years old, and has already committed to attending ICON full-time next fall as a commuter student. Last year, Matthes had the chance to participate in ICON Beginnings, a pilot program run by Nolte and Brown, and she was blown away by the growth she made over just a short time. “We got to do work with guest teachers and do choreographic workshops where we created our own solos, and our peers created group dances on us, and we learned variations—all of these things you don’t really get to do in night classes,” she says. “Peers and teachers starting coming up to me and telling me that I looked so much stronger. ICON really changed my dancing even in that one year.”
To join Matthes and dancers like her, prospective students can meet the ICON team on its audition tour. Zoom and virtual auditions are also available. Remaining dates and cities include January 28: Chicago, IL; January 29: Austin, TX; February 4: Winston-Salem, NC; February 10: Des Moines, IA; February 12: Omaha, NE; February 18: Denver, CO; March 11: New York, NY; April 1: virtual; April 2: virtual.
ICON is enrolling incoming students in grades 9–12, as well as for a gap-year option. Interested students can register to audition and learn more about ICON’s requirements here. “Leslie Nolte creates such a positive environment for dancers,” says Matthes. “I just want to be in that environment for as long as I can, and being at ICON will allow me to spend more time with the great teachers she brings in. I can’t wait to see what doors it will open.”