Buzz Worthy: Dance is finding an audience in the Sarasota area

August 25, 2013 

It can be tough to attract an audience for dance. Almost everyone involved in the art and business of dance agrees, but no one's sure quite why. There are as many theories as there are dance professionals.

Leymis Bolanos Wilmott is the artistic director of Fuzion Dance Artists, arguably the best modern dance company in the area.

"We've had a drop in the past year," she said. "As an organization, we're trying to figure out why."

Even in major venues, dance can be a tough sell. The Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa came close to giving up presenting the world's best modern dance companies a few years back when such international figures as Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham played to nearly empty halls.

"We always had 300 people," Straz president Judy Lisi said. "And it was always the same 300 people."

A lot of those 300, Lisi allowed were dance students who were assigned to see the masters of the art form.

"It's the problem of abstraction," said Dwight Currie, the associate director for exhibitions for the Ringling Museum. "You remove the narrative and people aren't sure how approach it. But you should be able to enjoy it. You should be able to look at a paining and think 'That's a pretty painting,' and you should be able to look at a dance and think 'That's a pretty dance.' "

Mary Anne Servian, the managing director of the Sarasota Ballet, said the problem her organization faces is getting people from the community to see the company for the first time.

One issue here, she said, is that dance companies, like most arts organizations, depend on the huge seasonal population. And that population comes largely from northern cities with longer traditions of dance. They may winter here, but they still think of Florida as an artistic backwater.

"For some reason people think, 'Theater, OK, the orchestra, I'll try that. But ballet, I'm not so sure,'" she said.

Despite difficulties, though, dance is faring well in the Bradenton-Sarasota area, especially lately.

The Sarasota Ballet had been increasing sales slowly but steadily for a few years -- no doubt partly due to mere population growth — and then got major boost earlier this year from glowing reviews in the New York Times and one from the Washington Post. “We’re getting a lot of first-time ticket buyers who live here,” Servian said. “They’re telling us they had no idea there was a company of this quality here until they read about us in The New York Times.” Up in Tampa at the Straz Center, the burgeoning of the remarkable pre-professional Next Generation Ballet has created a seedbed for a dance audience that is starting to transfer to modern dance. The Dance Theatre of Harlem played the Straz a few months ago, and sold out the same hall that had been nearly empty for Mark Morris and Merce Cunningham. Even for Fuzion Dance Artists, who have seen dwindling ticket sales, the picture isn’t so bleak. Fuzion has been collaborating with other local arts groups for interdisciplinary events, so they’re still reaching people, even if it’s not through their two big annual concerts. Bolanos Wilmott said she sees the need for continue to cultivate dance audiences for the present and the future. Her company has started a series of events called “Behind the Curtain” that allows visitors to watch rehearsals, for free, and talk to choreographers. Like Sarasota Ballet, the important thing for Fuzion is to get people in the door that first time. “You can’t just watch it on the screen,” Bolanos Wilmott said. “You have to experience it. You have to hear the dancers breathe.” Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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