At a time when many arts groups are still scaling back and myriad entertainments beckon, the Florida Dance Association – which seemed in danger of disappearing a few years ago – is stepping up with an ambitious and expanded Winterfest dance festival that kicks off on Thursday.

“Right, in this climate I got more ambitious – how dare I?” says Bill Doolin, the association’s director and sole employee. “But I think sometimes you just need to take a chance.”

The third edition of the festival features an enticing, adventurous range of local and national modern dance through January. Among the highlights: A retrospective of work by Gerri Houlihan, a nationally renowned teacher whose company was a pillar of the Miami dance scene in the 1990s; a showcase of some of Miami’s best choreographers; a dramatic hip-hop dance theater group; one of the hottest new talents on the New York dance scene and a wild mix of circus artistry, performance art and disabled dance. Each program will include master classes and workshops.

The first two Winterfests took place during the busy period between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but Doolin, who became interim director in 2006 and permanent director last year, saw an opening in January.

“There hasn’t been a lot going on during this time, and I decided to step into that niche,” he said. “I feel like we need to keep fresh and show people what’s going on.”

The Jan. 7-8 Miami Dances program is an overview of work by recipients of Miami-Dade County Choreographic Fellowships. It includes Augusto Soledade’s Brazz Dance Theater, which blends Afro-Brazilian and modern dance; excerpts from works in progress by Letty Bassart, working with musicians from the New World Symphony, and the ever-unconventional Octavio Campos, presenting Please Don’t Hate Me and Mermaids, Porn Stars and Pigs, about the Bay of Pigs.

Also on view will be scenes from Heather Maloney’s Vertical Sprawl, which examines development and environmental degradation using as a metaphor Easter Island, which was deforested when its inhabitants built the huge sculptural monuments for which the island is famous. Juan Carlos Espinosa’s score incorporates text from extinct and endangered languages.

Maloney, who also runs Inkub8 Studio, a studio and performance space in Wynwood, hopes the extended Winterfest will enrich the dance scene.

“I’m very impressed by how much [Doolin] has going on,” she said. “This Winterfest has a very diverse palette of work and that certainly benefits the dance community here. Also it helps local people to see more – when it’s just Christmas, it’s hard for people to be involved.”

The Houlihan program that opens the festival will look back at a company whose leader created some of the most substantial and entertaining dance in South Florida between 1991 and 1999 while she was a teacher at New World School of the Arts. Former Houlihan dancers Jennifer Nugent and Paul Matteson, now with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, will perform, and Kristin O’Neal, another alum now teaching at the University of Florida, is sending students to perform Houlihan’s 4×4.

Houlihan, who now teaches at Florida State University and was recently appointed co-dean of the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., is happy to revisit her dance-making period, largely because of the chance to reconnect with dancers.
“It’s more about celebrating the people who were part of this company,” she says. “The dancers pushed me to experiment more and try new things, and that was really valuable.”

The last three programs provide a rare glimpse at smaller scale contemporary dance from outside South Florida. Jennifer Archibald’s New York-based Arch Dance Company, performing Jan 15-16, blends hip-hop and modern dance. On Jan. 22, New York’s Kate Weare Dance Company performs a program that includes Bright Land, a dance set to 19{+t}{+h} century American folk music by The Crooked Jades that received strong reviews for its recent New York debut. (The New York Times called it “idiosyncratic, original, theatrically striking.”)

Archibald, who studied at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and performed with a hip-hop group, will present Uncomfortable Truth, which looks at women’s identities and relationships with their mothers. It draws on her own experiences and those of her six dancers.

She’s trying to go beyond the acrobatics and machismo for which hip-hop dance is known to a more intimate world.
“All my work is very personal. I just want to show that hip-hop can be more about storytelling than the commercial dance crew, MTV image it’s been given. Ideally it comes from a deeper place.”

Winterfest winds up with San Francisco’s Jess Curtis/Gravity troupe in a preview of Dances for Non/FictionalBodies, Jan. 28-29. Co-commissioned and co-presented by Tigertail Productions, Non/Fictional Bodies combines circus, performance art and conventional and disabled dancers to examine how societal ideals restrict individual identity.


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