Cutting-edge dance come to Tampa

The Florida Dance Festival has rebounded and is gaining strength.

mclear@bradenton.comJune 16, 2013 

For a decade or so, every June, theaters, clubs and parks all over Tampa were overflowing with dancers and dance performances.

That ended about 15 years ago when the festival moved to Miami. The Florida Dance Festival has been scaled down since those years, but it's now back in Tampa, and festival officials are determined to bring it back to its full glory. This year is an important one in that rebuilding process.

"It took 15 years for it to develop that spark in Tampa," said Bill Doolin, the artistic director of the Florida Dance Association, which organizes the annual festival. "It's going to take awhile to develop it again."

But in the meantime, it's still an exciting event that brings in dance and dancers that a mid-sized city such as Tampa doesn't usually get to experience. And though it hasn't yet recaptured its peak strength, the festival is strong this year and is offering some exciting concerts.

The Florida Dance Festival has two components. One is education. Student dancers come from all over Florida to study with top professionals.

The second is performance. The festival brings in some of the most interesting dance companies, so that students from Palatka and Pensacola and Palmetto can experience dance that they would never see in their hometowns.

It's often cutting-edge companies that might not otherwise have a chance to perform in West Central Florida, so the festival gives dance aficionados an opportunity experience a wider breadth of American dance.

This year's dance festival runs June 17-29, with performances starting June 19.

Instead of being scattered in venues around Tampa, this year's performances are all at the festival's home base at the University of South Florida.

There are only five performances this year, but Doolin said he's concentrating on quality instead of quantity this year and bringing in some of the country's most intriguing dance artists, all performing in Tampa for the first time.

The first performance comes from Los Angeles-based dancer Sheetal Gandhi, a former Cirque du Soleil star who fuses traditional Indian dance with contemporary styles.

"It's been a long time since we featured a solo dancer," Dooilin said. "I wanted to show our students Indian dance, but also show them how one person can hold a stage for 50 minutes."

Gandhi said her performance traces her experience as a woman who's part of a ethnic minority in America, and looks at changing attitudes. It's often sad and often funny.

"I use traditional Indian dance, but also vocal percussion and singing," Gandhi said. "It will appeal to the Indian community, but because it's not just pure traditional Indian dance, it appeals to a wider audience than that."

One of the other highlights will be San Francisco's Sean Dorsey Dance, which presents "The Secret History of Love" June 28.

Dorsey spent two years interviewing gay, lesbian and transgender senior citizens around the country, talking about their search for love and happiness in an age where they could have been arrested or even killed for holding hands.

"It's full-throttle dance and theater," Dorsey said. "It reveals the way LBGT people found ways not just to survive but to thrive in the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. But it's also about the search for love and security and connection that everyone longs for."

The piece incorporates four dancers, along with recordings of those oral histories of more than a dozen people.

Georgia-based Core Performance Company, which for more than 30 years has been known for energetic and innovative dance with a dash of improv, performs June 22. And Miami's Heather Maloney offers "unquiet/body" a moving duet that features a disabled dancer on June 26.

Doolin said he's been a fan of both Maloney and Core for many years, and has been eager to bring them to the festival.

The festival finale, June 29, is a student showcase choreographed by festival faculty members.

Conspicuously absent this year are the popular "Florida Dances" programs. Each years festival used to feature several concerts by up-and-coming dance companies from around Florida, some of them unknown outside their communities. They were often the most popular and among most exciting concerts of the festival.

Last year, Doolin said, he could only find enough quality companies who were interested in coming to the festival to put together one Florida Dances program. So this year he decided to put Florida Dances on hold in hopes of having a revitalized program next year.

"There just wasn't the interest," he said. "I need to re-build that interest. So I'm putting it on hiatus for this year."

The reason the festival isn't as big as it once was, Doolin said, is that his predecessors moved the festival from its original, long-time home in Tampa to Miami, where it remained for more than a decade.

There were legitimate reasons for the move, but it turned out badly. Miami was geographically inconvenient for students from the northern part of the state. And the fact that they all had to rent hotel rooms -- rather than stay in dorms as they do at USF -- added a expense that kept a lot of potential students away.

At one point, the festival's enrollment had dropped from more than a thousand in its heyday to about 30.

It's been back in Tampa for three years, and Doolin is determined to recapture the scope and vibrancy it had at its peak.

"I'm bringing it back its core at USF," he said. "It's going to build up that momentum and then I'd love to see it in theaters and other spaces around the area, at the Straz center, in Ybor City and even in St. Petersburg."

Details: June 19-29, Theatre 2, University of South Florida, 4202 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa. Show times: 8 p.m. June 19, 22, 26, 28 and 29. Tickets: $7-$12. Information: 305-310-8080, www.floridadanceassociation.org.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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