Caitlin McMullen was never the ballerina type.
As a child, she had a lot of energy and a strong build. When her friends began shuffling off to pointe class, McMullen enrolled in gymnastics.
At six, she started training. At nine, she started competing. By 14, she was ready to move on to something else.
“I had to make a decision,” McMullen says. “I was a point where if I continued with gymnastics it was going to be my whole life, and I was getting too tall.”
She’s five-foot-seven –– giant by gymnast standards.
So she dabbled in swing dancing, an outlet that suited her natural athleticism and acrobatic training, and enrolled in ballroom dance lessons with a male friend, who at first seemed genuinely interested in being her partner.
His true intentions were revealed halfway through the studio’s eight-month course. He had a crush on McMullen.
The 24-year-old Tallahassee native has always had a captivating stage presence, though as she often admits, her formal dance training is limited.
A student of tai chi and yoga, she understands the merits of self-discipline, she’s just not comfortable with the kind of restraint that’s required of ballerinas.
“When I thought of dance, I always thought of ballet,” McMullen says. “It didn’t appeal to me. The movements and the culture surrounding it just seemed too rigid.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Sarasota six years ago to study at New College of Florida that she discovered a world of opportunities beyond ballet and ballroom: modern dance.
At New College, she studied under Leymis Bolaños Wilmott, the co-founder and artistic director of Fuzión Dance Artists, who exposed McMullen to some of her flowing African influences.
The experience was liberating. McMullen thrived off the spontaneity and looseness of Wilmott’s choreography.
From there she studied experimental movement under New College theater and dance instructor Margaret Eginton, who currently serves as an associate professor and head of movement and dance at the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
Under Eginton’s tutelage, McMullen performed in several contemporary abstract theater projects in conjunction with New Music New College, an extension of the college’s music program that serves as a platform for new avant-garde compositional and performance pieces.
In 2010, McMullen, who for six years has manned an organic produce stand at the Sarasota Farmers Market, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary performance. Now an apprentice with Fuzión, she danced in last season’s Butoh performance at the Ringling International Arts Festival.
She says it was among one of her strangest and most arresting performances yet.
“People were mesmerized by it because it was so out of the ordinary,” McMullen says. “The movements were so slow and exaggerated and we were so aloof. A lot of people had really intense personal experiences with that performance.”
Her latest project –– “Ritmo Caliente: Hot Rhythm and Dance from Another Land” –– is a bit more accessible. A joint collaboration with Sarasota-based student jazz ensemble Jazz Juvenocracy, the program is a mix of Afro-Cuban, Latin, African and gypsy music and dancing.
Choreographed by Wilmott, the piece, which debuted earlier this month, runs through April 28, at the Glenridge Performing Arts Center.
McMullen was especially nervous on opening night, more nervous than usual.
Although she had understudied one of the roles, her job required a different kind of concentration: backstage concentration. Tasked with calling light cues and sharing stage management responsibilities with GPAC Manager Ben Turoff, McMullen was afraid she’d miss a beat.
She had never called a show before, much less a two-hour show in front of a packed house.
“It was exciting and stressful,” McMullen says. “I was anxiety-ridden. Thankfully, I knew the piece and had been to all the rehearsals.”
IF YOU GO
Fuzión Dance Artists together with Jazz Juvenocracy will perform Â“Ritmo Caliente: Hot Rhythm and Dance from Another LandÂ” at 8 p.m. April 27 and April 28 at the Glenridge Performing Arts Center. For tickets, call 552-5325 or visit gpactix.com.
MCMULLEN’S DANCE IDOLS
Pilobolus: “They have this incredibly physical acrobatic base of movements. A lot of what they do is mind-boggling. Three or four people will share weight to become this single moving body. The choreography is always collaborative. It could never be done with just one person.”