An upswing in local arts collaborations is promising, but inconsistent content is a risk 

Live Active Cultures

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Unity. A dozen years ago this week it was on everyone’s lips, as a frightened nation rallied together in the wake of 9/11 around the refrain “United We Stand.” But 12 years later, those cooperative ideals look as faded as an American flag sticker still stubbornly clinging to an SUV bumper. With America more politically and economically divided than ever, it seems there’s only one area left where “all for one, one for all” still provokes anything other than a cynical snort: the arts.

Lately, Central Florida has seen an upswing in interest in collaborative co-productions among the area’s performing arts groups. A byproduct of this trend has been a proliferation of multi-company performances, where patrons experience offerings from a variety of artists in a single setting. Sometimes the participants work closely together, merging their aesthetics into an original fusion that goes beyond what either could create in isolation (see Jessica Earley’s I Believe in You or BabyBlue and Patrick Fatica’s Hammers and Lambs). Other times, like at the annual Red Chair Affair, independent entities are presented sequentially as a variety show, serving as a sampler that may (or may not) add up to more than the sum of its parts.

In the discipline of dance, one of Orlando’s most active advocates for such inter-artist alliances is Larissa Humiston, artistic director of Emotions Dance. Last weekend’s collaborative concert The Shift: Unity in Motion, Humiston’s second annual group show, was more the latter format than the former, focusing on the divergent styles of seven of Orlando’s “modern” and “contemporary” (mostly meaningless monikers) dance companies. [Full disclosure: I’m married to the artistic director of Voci Dance, which presented one of the evening’s 15 pieces.]

Without curation or a common theme, the promise and peril of such a combination (which one friend aptly called a “mish-mosh”) is inconsistent content. On one side of the spectrum, you have professional-quality performers like director Nikki Pena’s Coby Dance Project, featuring the impossibly lithe Ivan Gomez; their structured improvisations, one of which featured dances selected randomly right before the show, looked more polished than much of the evening’s rehearsed choreography. (The fact that they are among our town’s most diverse troupes in terms of ethnicity and body type is an added bonus.) At the other end are newer companies that are trying to find their footing, like Elise Frost’s Red Right Return; one routine resembled warmup exercises with little connection between dancers, while their second used some interesting pedestrian movements but looked overcrowded and underdeveloped.

Most of The Shift’s segments fell somewhere in the center. Canvas Coalition had fun with props like wireless lightbulbs and a string of LEDs in two pieces choreographed by Ariel Clark and Holly Harris that played with ideas of light and shadow. The balletic solos starring Mary Love Ward (of Mary Love Dance Projects) reminded me of “dancing for your life” on So You Think You Can Dance. Yow Dance’s featured performer, Christin Caviness, is a terrifically talented technician, but their choreography seems stuck between Disneyana and desperation. And Emotions’ precocious performers have plenty of potential, but aren’t yet mature enough to effectively emote while synchronizing movement in unison.

Humiston’s motivation in producing the show was equal parts philosophical and economic, since dance is expensive even without well-paid performers. As she shared during Saturday’s post-show Q&A, a modest United Arts grant covered barely a quarter of the costs, and they needed to nearly sell out Orlando Shakes’ Goldman Theater to break even. But I was struck by her well-intentioned admonition for patrons who “want dance to survive” to “go out there and support all of the companies” with $20 tickets even if they “like one work better than the others.”

There’s something to be said for the theory that a rising tide of more dance product (regardless of merit) will benefit all boats, so I appreciate Humiston’s egalitarian impulses and applaud her community-building efforts. But as a devoted devil’s advocate, I’d modestly propose modifying her admonition and saving your money for only those artists you actually enjoy. You don’t have to be Ayn Rand to understand that, absent unlimited resources, healthy competition is essential for allowing quality to emerge above the noise. I’m all for artists sharing moral and logistical support, as long as it doesn’t mandate sacrificing individual artistic standards, or celebrating mediocrity as equal to mastery. Divided we fall, perhaps … but united we can still flail.

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