Forward steps 

In Italian, the word "voci" means "voices." It's also the name of a contemporary dance company in Orlando. Chances are, you've never heard of them -- and that's the problem.

Twenty-nine-year-old Adrienne Nichols is VOCI's company director. Comprising eight dancers -- six women and two men -- the group is stylistically rooted in the modern school of dance. But it fans out to include improvisational movement and the personal artistic preferences of its dancers, who also serve as choreographers.

"It's not just about performing in tights, tutus and point shoes," says Nichols. "It's about communicating through your body."

Nichols moved to the Orlando area four and a half years ago. She left Brooklyn to attend Wilkes University in Pennsylvania and fell in love with the modern sensibility. A school of dance that originated in the early 20th century, the discipline turned out modern pioneers like Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham who turned away from the confines of classical ballet toward a freer form of bodily self-expression.

Aspiring to remain in the spirit of that tradition, Nichols says she and company member Christopher Rusch formed VOCI in January of last year and hope that the group will become established enough to go on tour. Tough goals for a group of dancers anywhere, but in Orlando, it may be ambition akin to looking for snow-flakes in mid-December. Nichols acknowledges as much.

"Here we have a base that is so tightly wound around one type of dance, which is ballet. This is all [the Orlando community] has ever known. And it's unfortunate because you've got these underground art movements [with people] who are willing to come and see something like this ... but since nobody really knows about it, it's very difficult to explain who we are or what we're trying to do."

So what is the artistic "it," that VOCI is attempting to express? When the group made its debut at this year's Orlando International Fringe Festival, an event known for attracting diverse performers and audience members, its dancers presented pieces set to the music of a wide range of composers including J.S. Bach, Dave Brubeck and Tori Amos. Before each performance, Nichols' husband selected a different musical composition to open the show, keeping its identity a secret from the dancers. During one performance, Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" filled the second-floor theater space of the Gallery at Avalon Island; the dancers, flushed and smiling with surprise, improvised their steps. When the group performed at the recent United Arts-sponsored "Arts in the Park" event, a windy day made the music hard to hear, but the athletic trickery of the dancers was apparent to all.

Providing support to a new group like VOCI may prove to be a task as complex as modern choreography itself. An area that offers a plethora of dance schools for budding adolescent ballerinas (or as Nichols fondly chides, "bun-heads"), Orlando is not a community accustomed to supporting professional companies outside the classical ballet tradition.

A Philadelphia native now in her fifth year in Orlando, VOCI dancer Genevieve Bernard believes modern dance is a tough sell for the area. "In Philadelphia, I could talk to someone that isn't a dance person, but they know what modern dance is. They know that there are different forms of dance out there. Some may appeal to them and some may not. We don't have an audience educated to even accept that."

Bob Sherry, professor of dance at Rollins College, is aware of the struggle groups like VOCI face. During his 13 years at Rollins, Sherry has been instrumental in bringing a number of highly acclaimed contemporary dance companies to the Annie Russell Theatre. While dance lovers might jam the seats of concert halls in larger cities, performances were not sold out when Rollins presented the respected New York-based David Parsons Dance Company earlier this year. "I get very interesting reactions to our series," Sherry muses. "I wouldn't call it resistance. [But] dance is not a part of our growing up in this country."

Even Southern Ballet Theatre, the area's only professional full-time ballet company, did not see sellouts in their season opener, "La Fille Mal Gardée." So how do you nurture new contemporary companies like VOCI when the traditional dance community continues to struggle with the challenges of attracting an audience?

Ellie Potts Barrett doesn't see a looming dark cloud. Barrett, along with two other dancers, headed up The Dance Company Inc., a professional modern group that performed in the early 1980s. Barrett, who teaches modern dance in and out of the Orlando area, says her company had no trouble attracting enthusiastic audiences when making its debut at the Annie Russell Theatre. In fact, the 50-year-old Barrett generated fresh buzz at "Arts in the Park" when she and some of her students (two of them VOCI members, incidentally) performed together. Barrett contends that Orlando remains at the ready for contemporary dance. "It's not a lack of energy or lack of support; the audience is here."

There are signs that Orlando may be growing more open to dance traditions other than classical. Peter Stark, dance master with Southern Ballet, thought highly enough of VOCI to tap them to perform at "Arts in the Park," which he helped to coordinate. Stark credits United Arts Vice President Karen Plunkett for suggesting that the event should be more "inclusive" to those outside the classical dance realm.

But coming by the necessary funding needed to stay alive may prove to be a less inclusive experience for VOCI: Scores of local arts groups clamor for a share of coveted funds designated for the arts. And the more groups that are allotted a prized share, the more ways the winnings are split.

Nichols says that for a time, VOCI actually considered not going for the nonprofit status necessary to be eligible to receive grant monies. The idea was to try to survive on ticket sales alone -- a risky proposition considering that box-office receipts generally make up the smallest portion of a performing group's revenue. But Nichols says the group is now in the process of retaining a lawyer to assist in filing for its not-for-profit status.

"As much as we really want to be a company that could actually live off of what we're doing, our best route would be to get more grant money than anything else. I mean, when I've got people approaching me saying, 'We want to give to you' -- I can't take their money in good faith if I can't give them a receipt for tax purposes."

While VOCI members grow more adept at the choreography of survival, they also continue to scout for creative venues in which to perform. Perhaps in keeping with its modern roots, the group has chosen a nontraditional stage for its next performance on Dec. 8, with the first in a series of "Living Sculpture" performances at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park. VOCI is also exploring putting together a performance series at downtown's AKA Lounge.

Nichols says VOCI wants to offer more traditional lecture demonstrations and master classes at public schools. (As with many professional dancers, several VOCI members teach in order to pay the bills.)

"We are not trying to appeal to just one sector of the community," she says. "We're trying to show that this is an everyman's art form. You don't have to spend $85 and watch somebody on pointe for two hours."

Actually, it will cost from five to 55 bucks to see one of the ubiquitous productions of "The Nutcracker" this year. There will be at least four different professional versions of the holiday classic on stage in the area. All of which might lead one to wonder -- if we can support four "Nutcrackers," why can't we successfully support one contemporary dance company? VOCI is hoping that "one" won't be one too many.


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