Courtney Smith and Leah Verier-Dunn dance together like old friends.
Swinging from two trapeze bars rigged from the ceiling in a black-box rehearsal room at Booker High School, Smith and Verier-Dunn — at first glance — look like kids at play.
They twist and slide their bodies over and under the wooden bars. They meet in the middle of the room and knit their arms and legs together in a fleeting moment of loose embrace. They walk and talk through moves, laughing at occasional near-falls, which, when they happen, look so graceful they appear planned.
Even without music, the choreography radiates circus energy — and not just because it requires two trapezes — but because Verier-Dunn, 25, and Smith, 27, friends since the sixth grade, are having a riot.
The two women are the artistic directors of Moving Ethos, a modern Sarasota dance company founded by Smith in 2006.
Commissioned to perform a dance concert inspired by the circus photography of Frederick W. Glasier, whose exhibit, “HEYDAY: Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier” is up May 15 to Sept. 6, at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Moving Ethos is sure to garner buzz when its five-act circus dance premieres this Friday at the Historic Asolo Theater.
“I think we’re on the cusp of something,” Verier-Dunn says of the upcoming performance, which marks the company’s third collaboration with the Ringling Museum. “The first couple of years we were mostly on our own, figuring things out as we went. Now it feels like there’s been a shift. People are starting to hear about us. The word is starting to trickle down.”
And deservedly so.
Moving Ethos was among a handful of local artists invited to perform at last year’s blockbuster Ringling International Arts Festival.
Its budding repertoire boasts an impressive array of original work, including last December’s Booker High dance concert based on the written work of filmmaker Tim Burton and a bevy of community festivals.
One of two contemporary dance companies in Sarasota, Moving Ethos is the smaller, more traditional alternative to Fuzión Dance Artists. Only four dancers and two apprentices are on the roster, including Verier-Dunn and Smith, both of whom are Booker grads and remain indebted to the school by offering apprentice slots to students every year.
They got a lucky break in 2008 when they nabbed their first Ringling Museum commission, thanks to their friendship with Aaron Muhl, a former Booker classmate and the Historic Asolo Theater’s technical director.
“When you’re up-and-coming, people want to know who knows you and likes you before they’ll give you a chance,” Verier-Dunn says. “To have the Historic Asolo name attached to our name was huge.”
“Shifting Phantoms,” their 2008 performance modeled after the museum’s otherworldly “Phantasmagoria” exhibit, marked the beginning of a high-profile collaboration. In 2009, they returned to the theater for “The Testimony of Matrimony,” a dance inspired by an exhibit of painted Renaissance-era wedding chests.
This year’s circus concert, however, is the company’s biggest and most ambitious project to date. With less than five months to prepare, Smith and Verier-Dunn created a series of dance vignettes using the subjects of Glasier’s intimate black-and-white photographs as their muse.
Broken into five sections, “Center Ring” begins by looking at how female circus performers (bearded ladies, contortionists, gymnasts) held onto their femininity despite working in freakish and athletic situations.
The second act is based on elephants and how, in Smith’s words, “these giant and ancient creatures came to do funny and absurd things, like balance on tiny stools.”
The third act, inspired by the founder of modern dance, Loie Fuller, came as a surprise to Smith and Verier-Dunn. When they opened Glasier’s book to a page devoted entirely to Fuller, who spent much of her career working in vaudeville and circus shows, they knew they needed to create a bit just for her.
The last two pieces — the trapeze dance and the farcical clown closer — are bound to be crowd-pleasers.
“Most of the moments captured in this exhibit happened behind the scenes, which is something you don’t see all the time,” Smith says. “It’s like here are these performers who are really out there and really good at showing off … and here they are collecting their paychecks and washing their clothes. The dichotomy of the entertainer and the person intrigued us. It’s something we could relate to.”
If You Go
Moving Ethos will perform “Center Ring” at 8 p.m. Friday, May 14 and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 15, at the Historic Asolo Theater. For more information, call 360-7399 or visit movingethos.com.
Contact Heidi Kurpiela at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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