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'Movement love letter' aims to establish dance presence in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — As you glance over the weekend's events, you might want to note one that is different.

More than an evening's entertainment, Beacon: A Performance Series for St. Pete, held Saturday at the Palladium, is part of an effort to start a dance company in St. Petersburg. The organizers, choreographers and dancers either live in the city or work here.

The Palladium is co-sponsoring the event with St. Petersburg natives Helen Hansen French and Lauren Ree Slone, who also perform in the program.

Separate choreographers created each of the four original dance pieces in the program. All have professional experience. Loren Davidson, who will perform in a duet with Slone, is a dance teaching artist at Florida State University.

A grant from the city's cultural affairs department has helped make the performance possible. Its purpose, French said, is to raise the dance profile in St. Petersburg and turn the city into a home base for artists, as companies in Sarasota and Tampa have done.

French has been affiliated with the Buglisi Dance Theatre in New York since graduating from the Juilliard School. She still performs with the company sometimes, though she returned to St. Petersburg last year.

On visits home, she listened to friends in the local dance community. The main problem was that despite lengthy professional pedigrees, no one in St. Petersburg seemed to know they existed.

These dancers and choreographers had to go out of town to get work. They conceived their own shows but could not afford to rent a stage.

"I thought, 'This is so ridiculous,' " said French, 36. "I should not have to leave my home. Let's create a way for dancers to dance here."

French's perspective on St. Petersburg has changed.

Born in St. Anthony's Hospital in 1979, she is a third-generation native. Her grandfather, Robert Pfeiffer, was a postman and volunteer mascot for the St. Petersburg High Green Devils. Her grandparents remembered a bustling downtown with seniors socializing on green benches and stores run by people they knew.

By the time French came along, downtown was all but dead. Tyrone Mall had flattened the city's once vital core, an economic bomb that left buildings without tenants. Boutiques and other retailers sprung up from time to time, which hid the devastation about as well as rouge covers up a black eye.

"The Vinoy was a dilapidated, broken down building," French said. "There were big box stores. I grew up hearing my grandparents talk about St. Pete as a place where everyone wanted to belong, but I could not wait to get out and go to New York."

Which is what she did. After graduating from the arts magnet at Gibbs High, French entered Juilliard. A world opened up.

Professors guided French, who was trained in classical dance, through ballroom and tap, modern dance and jazz. This set the stage for learning the technique pioneered by the late Martha Graham, which became her artistic baseline.

"I loved how the technique conveys human emotion, how your body can convey feelings and emotions to tell a story," she said. "The Graham technique captured everything about what the human spirit has to say."

After graduating from Juilliard in 2001, French was invited to join the Buglisi Dance Theatre, where she remains a principal dancer and rehearsal assistant. She has danced all over Europe and served on the dance faculties at several colleges, including Juilliard, George Mason University and St. Petersburg College.

In 2010 she married Jonathan French, an officer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They have a 3-year-old son, Paxton.

The grant she obtained allowed French to conduct a children's dance workshop. Two groups of young people, ages 8 to 18, performed their works in August at the Palladium. French hopes her Beacon show will set the tone for future events.

"My hope is that it grows," she said. "Not just once a year at the Palladium but twice a year and so on, so that Beacon becomes a festival or something. At the same time it can give others a chance to show their work.

"I want it to be so that the community becomes really invested and dance is recognized, and you wonder where it is when you don't see it."

French calls her show Saturday "a movement love letter to St. Petersburg."

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

. If you go

Beacon: A Performance Series for St. Pete

The show starts at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. $20-$30. (727) 822-3590. mypalladium.org.

'Movement love letter' aims to establish dance presence in St. Petersburg 11/13/15 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2015 4:25pm]
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