As an antidote to the national news, I've been searching our local arts scene for reasons to resist hopelessness, and last Sunday morning I found just such a motivation alongside Longwood's SunRail tracks, of all places. Emotions Dance director Larissa Humiston welcomed me into her second-story railside studio for a sneak peek at The Hope Movement, her company's cancer-supporting benefit concert with Lakeland's Florida Dance Theatre, which debuts at Orlando Shakes Oct. 4-5. But while the contemporary choreography was stunning, what really opened my eyes was their story of collaboration across Central Florida's far-flung dance community.
I fancy myself acquainted with most of the dance companies around Orlando, but I'll admit I was almost entirely ignorant of Florida Dance Theatre's quarter-century of existence before last weekend's preview. Based on the brief glimpses I got of dancer Molly Ahler executing artistic director Stefan Dolbashian's expressive choreography, this troupe looks worth the hour's drive west on I-4.
I sat down with Dolbashian and executive director Jermaine Thornton after rehearsal, and learned that Florida Dance Theatre is practically an endangered species in this state: a professional dance company supporting eight full-time salaried dancers that doesn't have "ballet" in its name.
Contemporary choreographers who struggle to find stable venues in the Orlando area may choke with jealousy when they hear that Florida Dance Theatre has its own space in downtown Lakeland (where they teach an afternoon training academy), as well as being the company in residence at Florida Southern College. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, their funding comes mostly from state grants, with some private donations. But they also benefit from what Thornton describes as a "progressing" arts environment in Lakeland.
"With every performance, every collaboration, it's growing," Thornton says, disputing the perception that "the only thing out there is cows and pastures and Publix money" by pointing to the 30-year-old magnet Harrison School for the Arts and the professional Imperial Symphony Orchestra, with whom Florida Dance Theatre partnered on an original production of Peter Pan.
"More and more collaborations are going on, creating a greater awareness for everything," Thornton says. Dolbashian agrees: "I find that the artistic community in Lakeland is bit more encouraging and supportive of each other than a lot of other artistic communities which are very competitive. ... I think the constant support in the artistic community is what's causing the rapid growth right now."
Florida Dance Theatre will even reach outside the arts world when they team with Florida Polytech University on a STEAM summit to "take the arts to another level and show the value and application in everyday life, not just as an entertainment or education component," Thornton says, referencing experimental treatments with Parkinson's and dementia patients. "We want to show that art can really enrich a community, not only just through production," Dolbashian adds. "There are so many values that art brings beyond just going to a show."
Emotions Dance first shared a bill with Florida Dance Theatre several years ago during their thrice-yearly choreographer showcase, The Shift. "We were very fortunate to be accepted into the first one, and we got to show one of our works there," Dolbashian recalls, recounting his first encounter with Humiston. "We just really clicked right away; I really admired her work, and how she handled business, and just thought she was a wonderful person."
They've wanted to collaborate ever since, but rather than simply trading works back and forth, they decided to create an entire concert in an effort to connect two communities, Dolbashian says. "Nobody really knows what's going on in Lakeland, but to be honest nobody in Lakeland really knows so much about what's going on out here either. So we're hoping through this we can start to bridge the gap between the artistic communities which are so close, yet so separated."
That alone would be an admirable endeavor, but Emotions and Florida Dance are also coming together in support of Orlando Health's Cancer Support Community, which provides integrative treatment focused on holistic healing.
The subject strikes home for several of the participants; Florida Dance Theatre founder Carol Krajacic Erkes is a cancer survivor, as is spoken-word artist Rosa Valencia, who performs during the show's improvisational finale.
"We're trying to engage Central Florida a little bit deeper than on an arts level," says Humiston. "We wanted to make it about hope, because all of the people I talked to at the [cancer center] were full of hope and positivity. When creating, I wanted to show some of the struggles, but also the coming together, and the hope, and the strength." That's something we could all use a dose of right now.
– This story appeared in the Oct. 2, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.