BEACON17 tonight at The Palladium: The return of an indispensable dance series

An interview with BEACON's Helen Hansen French, Lauren Ree Slone and Loren Davidson.

click to enlarge Charlotte Johnson on the set of Helen Hansen French's dance film, "Within the Bounding Line." - Charlotte Suarez
Charlotte Suarez
Charlotte Johnson on the set of Helen Hansen French's dance film, "Within the Bounding Line."

Fri., Jan. 13, 8 p.m.

The Palladium, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg

 $25, $35. $10 tickets available for youth and SPC students/faculty/staff.


In Meryl Streep's now famous (or infamous, depending on your perspective) Golden Globes speech, she observed that a central ingredient of the actor's art is empathy. On Tuesday morning I attended an open rehearsal for a piece that's part of tonight's BEACON17 program at The Palladium, and it occurred to me that empathy is key to the art of dance, too.

Miami-based guest choreographer Loren Davidson was giving post-rehearsal notes to the dancers who have been working with her this past week on a new piece called There are so many things to see and feel while you are awake…, the first work to be commissioned as part of BEACON’s new residency program. But she didn't express her notes just in words; she leapt up and executed moves, pointing out specific details in each dancer's movements that needed refinement. In turn, the dancers didn't just sit there and take in the critiques; they leapt up, too, perfecting the squat or the upward reach or the swivel of the head that Davidson had just demonstrated. To a non-dancer like myself, these communications between bodies seemed like small miracles of muscle memory. But it was clear that without this intense mutual concentration, the dance could not happen. Empathy was all.

And empathy is at the heart of the unique project that is BEACON. Co-founded by Helen Hansen French and Lauren Ree Slone, two dancer/choreographers with Pinellas roots who went on to national and international careers, BEACON strives to create a creative home for female dance artists like themselves who forge nomadic, multi-faceted careers without the security of being part of a company or a school.

“What they’ve created in Beacon just doesn’t exist anywhere else,” says Davidson, whose credits range from NYC to FSU and who co-choreographed a piece with Slone in the inaugural edition of BEACON in November 2015. “It doesn’t exist in terms of community, in terms of female artists working in this way, being beacons for ourselves and each other… in terms of pay, in terms of trust and honesty and positive work experience — there is no other model like that. It doesn’t exist in Miami, it doesn’t exist in academia, it doesn’t exist in many places.”

click to enlarge Sarah Walston in rehearsal for "Requiem." - Tom Kramer
Tom Kramer
Sarah Walston in rehearsal for "Requiem."

French and Slone, who both studied at Gibbs/PCCA (the arts magnet high school in St. Pete), want BEACON not only to support women artists but to enrich the community as a whole. The series’ 2015 debut took place the night after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, and it proved to be a cathartic experience for both the artists and the audience. The healing power of art will come to the fore this year in Requiem, a 2001/2002 work by Jacqulyn Buglisi of the renowned Buglisi Dance Theatre (where the Juilliard-trained French was a principal dancer). Set to the music of Fauré’s Requiem, the piece was originally inspired by 9/11; French has restaged it to be reflective of the moment we’re living through now.

Slone — who has a BA in religious studies with a minor in philosophy from West Virginia University, an MFA in dance performance and choreography from FSU, and is currently a program associate for Creative Capital’s Multi-Arts Production Fund — likens the current moment to a time when citizens had to band together to help one another.

Something in my head keeps jumping to Mutual Aid Societies in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Slone. “Many of them were formed by ambitious, willful women who were like, ‘All right, the government isn’t stepping in, the church isn’t stepping in, somebody’s got to organize something to take care of each other.”

For her, the dance community has provided that kind of support system — one that’s helped “to feed me, to move my body, to spiritually take care of me when my home wouldn’t and couldn’t,” and one with lessons applicable to the wider world. “I really think there are choreographic tools — an ethos — that is applicable beyond a studio or a stage: a Mutual Aid Society ethos that brings everybody in.”

Within the Bounding Line, a dance film receiving its world premiere as part of BEACON17, seems a living example of that ethos. Conceived, choreographed and directed by French, Bounding Line taps into the experience of being both an artist and a mother (she gave birth to her second child in mid-production). To create it, French brought together an all-star cast of “mother artist” collaborators, including dancer Charlotte Johnson, poet Maureen McDole, visual artist Carrie Jadus, and singer/actress Becca McCoy, with an original score composed and performed by Elizabeth Baker.

Local artists figure prominently in other parts of the BEACON17 program, too. Kellie Harmon/Rogue Dance, a standout in the 2015 program, brings Dream Deferred, a new work inspired by the hopes and frustrations of millennials, and dancer/choreographer Andee Scott performs a new solo work, She Engages in a Series of Surrenders.

All BEACON17 needs now is you.

click to enlarge Kellie Harmon in rehearsal for "Requiem." - Tom Kramer
Tom Kramer
Kellie Harmon in rehearsal for "Requiem."