Helen Hansen is the sort of dancer who has as much to say as she has to show. "I always loved the idea of telling a story or conveying what I was thinking through movement,'' Hansen says. "Not so much through doing a perfect pirouette or having the highest arabesque in the world. I really enjoyed the choreography that we got to do that had a narrative.''
Hansen, 30, who grew up in St. Petersburg and got her early dance training there, has been a member of the highly regarded Buglisi Dance Theatre, a modern dance company in New York, since 2001. She'll show some of the work she does with the company in a solo performance Feb. 28 at Studio@620 in downtown St. Petersburg.
With her interest in dance as a vehicle for stories and ideas, Hansen was drawn to the work of Martha Graham as a student of former Graham company principal dancers at the Juilliard School in New York. That led to her joining the Buglisi company, whose director, Jacqulyn Buglisi, was a Graham principal.
"We don't do any Martha Graham repertoire in Buglisi, but Jackie's choreographic style is highly influenced by all of her work with Martha Graham,'' Hansen says.
Graham, who died in 1991 at 96, was the legendary mother of modern dance. She brought the art form to a wide public with powerful pieces like Appalachian Spring and Cave of the Heart, a psychodrama about Medea. Her highly personal dance vocabulary — based on the famous "contract and release'' method — is angular, often awkward and has little to do with mere dancing.
"The passion for movement but also for self expression that comes out through the body was so evident in Graham's style,'' Hansen says. "A lot of it I didn't quite understand at first. There's one lift of your torso that I would describe as heaving your heart through your sternum. Using movement to convey an everyday emotion or a passion is so engaging and exciting and liberating and terrifying all at the same time.''
Like Graham's choreography, Buglisi's is often inspired by the work of poets and painters, such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, and Hansen will perform some of it next Sunday. She'll also dance Serenata Morisca, a piece by Ted Shawn that was performed by Graham, as well as several pieces in the Buglisi repertoire that pay tribute to pioneering modern dance works by Ruth St. Denis.
Hansen got her dance education in St. Petersburg at a time that now looks like a kind of golden age, with many of her contemporaries from the area having gone on to careers in major companies such as Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Ballet and Houston Ballet. She gives a lot of credit to her teachers Judith Lee Johnson, Suzanne Pomerantzeff and Patricia Paige.
After living in New York since 1997, Hansen is now spending more time back in St. Petersburg. Part of the reason is that the recession is taking its toll on modern dance, never the most prosperous of pursuits in the best of times. Buglisi Dance Theatre, an innovative and daring troupe, is feeling the pinch. In recent months, Hansen has gone with the company on an Italian tour, and she has restaged several Buglisi works for universities and taught Graham-based technique classes for the company, but the performance calendar is less full than in the past.
"Typically I work 26, maybe 30 weeks a season, when the company was working a lot,'' Hansen says. "This season, I would say I have about half the full-time work, closer to 15, 20 weeks. It's been tough. Obviously you're not making as much money, but there's something about the camaraderie of being in a company that I really miss. When you cut your time together in half, it can be depressing.''
So, romance to the rescue. A few days after her program at Studio@620, Hansen is getting married to Jonathan French, with a reception at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. French is a pilot with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Corps, which does weather and atmosphere surveys.
The pilot and the dancer — it sounds like a Hollywood love story. "Jon always says my job is fascinating, but I think his is really cool,'' Hansen says.
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Moving Current, the Tampa Bay area modern dance collective, is holding a choreography open house next weekend. "Show & Tell'' is an opportunity for choreographers to put on their work for an audience and dance experts in a studio setting. Moderators of the free event include Bob Gonzalez of the University of Tampa and Jeanne Travers of the University of South Florida. 7 p.m. Saturday at the USF Department of Dance, Studio 304. (813) 237-0216; movingcurrent.com.
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Judy Garland is the inspiration for a fundraiser for the Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project. "Divas Do Garland'' is emceed by Carolyn Michel and Roberta MacDonald and features Sharon Scott, Ann Morrison, Forrest Richards, Kyle Ennis Turoff and more in concert at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Players Theatre, 838 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. $10. (941) 365-2494. Benefits Michael Bach Health Center and Trinity Charities services to people with AIDS.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.