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Step into the Spotlight: Local dance company offers choreographers a rare opportunity

Sarasota Contemporary Dance show "Voices" gives young choreographers a chance to showcase their work.

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  • | 5:28 p.m. November 25, 2016
SCD company dancers rehearse Howe's piece,"Dok Champa (Plumeria) Village to Steam City." Photo by Niki Kottmann
SCD company dancers rehearse Howe's piece,"Dok Champa (Plumeria) Village to Steam City." Photo by Niki Kottmann
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Some messages are better told without words.

Melissa Hull and Melissa Coleman Sperber rehearse Hull's piece,
Melissa Hull and Melissa Coleman Sperber rehearse Hull's piece, "Early Loss." Photo by Niki Kottmann

For painters, the medium is canvas. For sculptors, it’s clay. For dancers, it’s a stage and an audience interested in watching performers pour their souls into every movement.

Five choreographers will give Sarasotans a look into their creative processes this weekend in Sarasota Contemporary Dance’s latest show, “Voices.” This annual performance, now in its fourth year at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, gives emerging choreographers the chance to showcase work that might otherwise go unseen.

“It’s hard as a first-time choreographer,” Artistic Director Leymis Bolanos Wilmott says. “I wanted to make it easier for them — create a vehicle for them.”

By showcasing an original piece through “Voices,” young choreographers can bypass the stress of trying to find dancers, costumes and all the other elements that go into planning a dance performance. Sarasota Contemporary Dance pays for the entire production of the show and choreographers have a 10-person company of dancers at their disposal.

SCD company dancers rehearse Wendy Rucci's piece,
SCD company dancers rehearse Wendy Rucci's piece,"Full Disclosure." Photo by Niki Kottmann

The idea for the show began when various members of the company came to Bolanos Wilmott and said they were interested in pursuing choreography. The platform became a means of fostering their creativity.

Watching their work come to life, Bolanos Wilmott says, makes her feel like a proud mom.

Three of the five choreographers for this year’s production are members of the SCD company: Natalie Robison, Benjamin Howe and Melissa Hull. The other two, Wendy Rucci and Samantha Pazos, were selected as emerging choreographers from the company’s summer intensive. Each derived his or her inspiration from unique experiences, and each had a different idea for how his or her vision would come to life. We spoke to three of this year’s choreographers to learn more about their creative process.

Natalie Robison

Natalie Robison comes from a traditional dance background: she’s a trained ballerina who got her professional start at Columbia Classical Ballet of Columbia, S.C., and freelanced on the East Coast before landing in Sarasota.

Natalie Robison rehearses her solo,
Natalie Robison rehearses her solo, "Saudade." Photo by Niki Kottmann

During her time in New York City, Robison befriended an opera singer named Miram Leah. Her days spent listening to Leah perform in Central Park are her fondest, most peaceful memories of living in New York City, and it’s Leah who will accompany her on stage to sing for the debut of her first piece of choreography.

The piece is set to Leah’s “Saudade,” a dark, emotional piece that Robison knew she wanted to choreograph the moment she heard it. The song perfectly embodied a personal struggle that Robison was going through at the time, and she says creating the piece was her way of working through that obstacle in her life.

“It was just about letting it go into the easel of the studio — the movements came out of the emotions that I was feeling at that exact moment,” she says.

Natalie Robison rehearses her solo,
Natalie Robison rehearses her solo, "Saudade." Photo by Niki Kottmann

The piece is intimate, but Robison hopes it’s open for interpretation. It’s set as a solo, in which she uses her long skirt as a prop. She hopes these two elements create a piece of art people don’t feel the need to have explained.

Transitioning from a dancer to a first-time choreographer, Robison realized that she became more critical of her work, but also was more liberated in who she can be onstage.

“This is the first time that I’ve felt like I’m truly being myself in a piece,” she says.

Samantha Pazos

Samantha Pazos is one of the two emerging choreographers who were picked from the SCD summer intensive. She trained in Cuban classical ballet in Miami, but it wasn’t until she got her MSA in choreography at Florida State University that she was exposed to the creative process behind dance.

Samantha Pazos got her original inspiration for her piece,
Samantha Pazos got her original inspiration for her piece, "Lorca Leave the Balcony open," when she studied abroad in Valencia during her time at Florida State University. Courtesy photo

The piece Pazos will showcase is more than a year in the making and was inspired by her travels to Spain. Pazos has always been a fan of Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, and after traveling to his home region of Southern Spain, the idea finally began to take shape.

Inspired by his mix of Arabic and Spanish themes, Pazos picked one work, “House of Bernada Alba,” to re-create as a dance. 

Pazos only had four days in Sarasota to work on the piece with her dancers before returning to Miami, and it wasn’t until she had all the bodies in one room that she says she was able to work through certain aspects, like what to do with the fans that she had bought in hopes of incorporating them.

Pazos describes the piece as part contemporary and part flamenco (she even sent the dancers flamenco videos to watch in her absence) with some touches of classical ballet inevitably thrown in. She is also a singer, so having a live musical element to the piece was important to her. Dancers Natalie Robison and Jahrel Thompson were up to the task and will sing throughout the piece.

SCD company dancers rehearse Pazos' piece,
SCD company dancers rehearse Pazos' piece, "Lorca Leave the Balcony open." Photo by Niki Kottmann

One unusual element is the use of group chanting as a means of feminist activism. At one point, the women dancers walk together in a circle, repeating lines about how being born a woman is an inconvenience.

“There’s this whole idea of gender and exploring your sexuality,” she says. “It’s this constant battle of trying to live up to society’s — and maybe your family’s — expectations and trying to fight against it.”

Benjamin Howe

Benjamin Howe’s dance background is anything but typical. He didn’t start dancing until he was 15 and didn’t take his first formal class until 25. He’s a hip-hop and house dancer at heart, but his style has since expanded to mirror his mixed identity as a half-Caucasian, half-Puerto Rican man who’s now trained in various dance styles.

Benjamin Howe  rehearses his piece,
Benjamin Howe rehearses his piece,"Dok Champa (Plumeria) Village to Steam City." Photo by Niki Kottmann

“I don’t stick to one thing,” he says. “Similar to not belonging to a world. I take from whatever I can.”

This is Howe’s fifth season as a SCD company dancer and his second time choreographing for “Voices.” This year, his piece is inspired by the refugee crisis in Europe and the struggles of indigenous people all over the world. His wife comes from a family of refugees who fled Laos, and as a male dancer defying the norms of masculinity, he drew from various places to tell the story of a group’s struggle to be true to themselves.

Howe collaborated with friend/composer Karim Manning to create the track for his piece, which was helpful as an artist who says he needs the music to speak to him in order to create. His piece is also 20 minutes long, and it includes various costume changes cued by music.

The first part of the piece features tribal-like costumes that he made sure to keep arbitrary in order to represent cultures across all continents. The next phase involves nude costumes, and the final phase features everyone in sports coats to represent their attempt at acclimating to their new society.



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