Seva Anthony is sitting in a heavy period costume in an uncomfortable-looking chair, staring out past the glare of a blinding spotlight.
Staring at what exactly is irrelevant. It’s a portrait model’s job to gaze into the abyss.
Anthony will later reveal that during these moments of quiet concentration, she’s actually trying to be a muse, trying to think specific thoughts that generate “a pleasant expression.”
“That’s what keeps a good model working,” Anthony says. “It’s like in theater: You need to know the show you’re in and play to your audience.”
Anthony’s audience on this particular afternoon is a handful of female painters stationed behind easels at the Morean Arts Center, in downtown St. Petersburg.
They seem transfixed by the 52-year-old Anthony, who shows no signs of discomfort or boredom.
Even the little white dog — an indifferent Bichon Frisé named Brise, which Anthony adopted from a circus act 13 years ago — has assumed a motionless position. Curled into a contented ball on a small square of carpet at his owner’s feet, Brise looks as if he’s snoozing in his own living room.
Together, they make a seasoned pair, at once regal and aloof.
As the three-hour portrait session comes to an end, quiet chatter fills the room.
“I think we all captured a little bit of you,” one woman says, scanning her classmates’ work. “It’s amazing.”
Anthony rises slowly and painfully from her chair.
Without bending her knees, she hobbles to the other side of the womens’ easels, giving away the fact that underneath the elaborate hat and velvet cape, her body is aching.
“Oh yeah, look at that,” she says cheerfully, even though at this point she’s viewed hundreds of paintings of herself.
After a short while she disappears into a back room to get changed. The women pack up for the day and lament the fact that three portrait sessions with Anthony isn’t enough.
They would like to have her for more.
“She’s always inspiring,” says artist Cheryl Yellowhawk, who currently has an exhibition up at the Dunedin Fine Arts Center featuring two portraits of Anthony. “I’ve painted dozens of models, but Seva is pretty special. She transforms herself every time she poses.”
Anthony emerges from a room in the back of the studio, dressed in loose pink pants and a blue mini dress with short bell sleeves that she’s held onto since high school.
She limps back to her chair. Brise lifts his head and sighs.
“I wanted to be a ballet dancer so bad I forced my body to do things it wasn’t ready to do,” she says. “When you’re a dancer, you have to live for today, and while I didn’t do the coffee and cigarettes things, I definitely didn’t get proper nutrition in my youth. And I pushed myself, ya know?”
She hikes up her pants to reveal two bloated knees.
After spending the first half of her career as a dancer and circus aerialist, Anthony is happy to sit still.
A Sarasota resident since 2004, Anthony has carved out a niche for herself as an art model, posing for students and professional painters at colleges and art centers from Venice to Tampa, including Sarasota’s Southern Atelier, where last weekend founder and Director Charles Miano hosted a benefit to help raise funds for her knee-replacement surgery.
“It’s almost embarrassing,” Anthony says of the fundraiser. “In the past I’ve had insurance, but I don’t have it now. Had I seen this coming … ”
She fails to finish the thought, and instead reaches into her bag and pulls out photographs of herself in a jewel-encrusted bikini, hanging upside down from a circus rope.
She was 33 years old: all muscle and legs, posture as straight as any ballerina’s, performing what was billed as “The Spanish Web” at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.
“It was a path I wasn’t expecting,” Anthony says of her signature act. “I never intended to join the circus, but my muscularity had always been a detriment to ballet.”
A native of Saranac Lake, N.Y., Anthony came to ballet late. She was 17 years old when she enrolled in her first summer residency program.
After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in ballet education at Virginia Intermont College, Anthony moved to New York City, where she spent the 1980s working as a dancer and choreographer for a number of dance and opera companies, including Light Opera of Manhattan and the Isadora Duncan Dance Company.
In 1989, as a favor to a friend, she agreed to go on an audition for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Her friend, a delicate ballerina with a slight build, didn’t get the gig. Anthony, however, did, signing on as a dancer and aerialist for Ringling’s 52-city Gunther Gebel-Williams Farewell Tour.
The experience would change her life.
“It opened up a whole new horizon,” Anthony says. “Instead of fighting to fit into a mold, I was able to create a life around my physicality. In a sense, I got what I wanted. I was an aerial ballerina, where I was much more suited.”
She shifts her attention to her bum knees, which she hopes to have fixed this summer.
Now an actress, singer and model, Anthony’s career no longer depends on her ability to fly from a rope in a 90-degree arabesque.
“I believe there’s longevity in acting,” says Anthony, who’s appeared on stage with the Banyan and Golden Apple Dinner theaters. “It’s almost like dancing is behind me.”
And “The Spanish Web?”
That last time she got on the ropes was during a 2003 performance of “Charlotte’s Web” at the Pendragon Theatre, in Saranac Lake.
She was, appropriately, cast as Charlotte.
“All humility aside,” Anthony says. “I was an amazing spider.”
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]