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‘We don’t do Swan Lake.’ New Tampa dance company rethinks ballet

The Tampa City Ballet is at work on a trilogy highlighting the rich immigrant history of Ybor City. They’ve also performed ‘If I Cry’, a journey inside Frida Kahlo’s mind, inspired by her diaries.

Paula Nuñez nodded approvingly, then would shake her head slightly as the dancers rehearsed in the space tucked into the corner of the Shoppes of Amberly in New Tampa.

It was one of the final times they’d rehearse before taking to stage in St. Petersburg and in Tampa. The company would be performing Pulcinella, a one-act ballet composed by Igor Stravinsky that premiered in Paris in 1920, with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso.

With their stuffed pillow props and a plot line reflective of a post-#MeToo era and nonbinary gender constructs, the choreography — and the company — sought to push the ballet’s boundaries.

Nuñez, a dance professor at the University of South Florida, first thought of creating the company as a bit of a rescue mission.

For years, she had watched as some of her best students left for New York and San Francisco, filled with dreams they eventually gave up pursuing.

“I’ve been seeing beautiful talent leave for the big cities and try to establish a professional career,” she said. “And for a lot of them, it’s hard to make it there. For a long time I felt there’s something I had to do about it. We have to rescue local talent.”

She decided to put her own background to good use.

Paula Nuñez, founder and artistic director with Tampa City Ballet, supervises a rehearsal for a performance of Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

Born in Caracas, Venezuela, Nuñez had been trained in classical ballet and worked for multiple international ballet companies. She loved ballet, she said, but something still felt like it was missing inside.

“I didn’t know exactly what it was until I started working with European choreographers,” she said.

A new wave of choreographers ushered in a new way of thinking about dance.

The studio could serve as more than a space for rehearsal — it could be a laboratory, a space for dancers to research and experiment and be part of the creative process, Nuñez said.

“(The choreography) comes from a real place,” she said. “It doesn’t come from somebody saying ‘one, two, three, four.’ It comes from saying let’s work on this emotion. Let’s work on this action. Let’s be at this moment here. This is a relationship — or this is a fight. It’s pieces, pieces and then magic.”

In 2012, she founded Tampa City Ballet. Nuñez began recruiting dancers: a former student about to pursue a career in physical therapy; another who was still in high school; yet another who was a graduate of the National School of Arts in Cuba.

Dancer Hannah Thompson with Tampa City Ballet attends a rehearsal for Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella, a ballet in one act. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

Matthew Doolin had danced professionally for 12 years and left a company in San Francisco to join Tampa City Ballet. The company is more diverse than many, he said, both in ethnicity and dance styles.

Doolin and 19-year-old Fernando Garcia, who trained in Cuba, danced side by side in Pulcinella.

“He may not dance like me and I may not dance like him, but we can dance together, and people can’t take their eyes off us,” Doolin said.

During a Sunday performance earlier this month, the audience at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg chuckled as Doolin and Garcia swapped identities, and the Florida Orchestra performed onstage behind the dancers. Picasso’s sketches for Pulcinella, on loan from St Petersburg’s Museum of Fine Arts, were projected onto screens.

The dancers received a standing ovation from the crowded theater audience.

Dancers with Tampa City Ballet perform with puppets while rehearsing for a performance of Igor Stravinsky's Pulcinella, a ballet in one act, at America's Ballet School in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes ]

So far, the company has put on an array of performances, including If I Cry, a journey inside Frida Kahlo’s mind, inspired by her diaries. They are working on the second part of a trilogy on Ybor City history.

“I believe that dance should serve,” Nuñez said. “If we do contemporary and more modern, we can bring avant garde choreography. We can open conversations, intellectual conversations, with the community.”

Nuñez said she fell in love with the rich immigrant history of Ybor City and began researching it. The first part of the trilogy, 7th Ave & Ybor, was performed in May. It focuses on the settlement of Ybor and its early cigar factories and bolita rackets. A forthcoming second installment, set during the 1930s, will focus on Ybor’s organized crime figures like Charlie Wall.

Nuñez said the dancers meet with local historians and longtime residents of the area, interviewing them and researching the story before starting choreography.

“We don’t do Swan Lake,” Doolin said. “We don’t repeat any material. Anything that Tampa sees will be brand new material bred right here in this studio.”

Art Keeble, the former executive director for the Arts Council of Hillsborough County, which is a sponsor of the company, watched a recent rehearsal at their studio.

“Tampa has never supported dance,” he said. “This is the best dance I’ve ever seen in this community."

Creating a community that embraces the art form is a challenge for the dancers.

Lily McCrosslin, who will be attending graduate school for physical therapy, said the company gave her an opportunity to dance professionally, something she never thought would have been possible.

“It takes people and it takes money to get a dance scene going,” she said.

But Doolin said the dancers here are on par with those in bigger cities.

"They are making a lot of sacrifices to create world class dance here in Tampa, where there is not a whole lot of representation for professional-level art,” he said.

Still, the group faces challenges. Each of the dancers have other jobs.

“This does not pay our bills, but the primary work hours of our week, we come here,” Doolin said. “I’m going to make it work, but I have four jobs.”

For Nuñez, each performance is an opportunity to create that community.

“We need to have more of a sense of community to teach the younger ones they can have a voice,” she said. “Through dance, we can express that.”