Helen Hansen French returned to St. Petersburg, her hometown, five years ago and immediately noticed – how could she not? – the cultural renaissance taking place.
Armed with a BFA in dance from the Juilliard School, French had created, choreographed and toured the world as principal dancer with the prestigious Buglisi Dance Theatre.
The graduate of Gibbs High’s Pinellas County Center for the Arts came home determined to stoke the very same creative fires in St. Pete. There was, however, work to be done.
“In America, dance is a marginalized art form in an already marginalized field, I think,” French says today. “The arts tend to be applauded as an ‘extra’ thing in our country, and within that, dance is still a little on the fringe. It seems a little less accessible to people, maybe, than visual art does.
“And in St. Pete in particular, I think it’s a few years behind the growth of the visual arts field.”
She co-founded the St. Petersburg Dance Alliance, which acts as a sort of centralized brain and clearinghouse for the community’s professional purveyors of modern dance and interpretive movement.
It started with a kind of “if you build it, they will come” theory. It was necessary.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of having a group of people with common goals,” French says. “Not that the Dance Alliance has deep pockets or anything, but we’re there to support each other. And to be a presence in the community.”
The Dance Alliance has become the go-to place for arts organizations, media producers, venues and even event-savvy businesses to find professionals.
“It tends to feed itself,” French explains. “You get people excited or interested, and then the community starts to see a more readily available presence of dance.
“Certainly, when I was a child there were not a lot of professionals working in the dance field in St. Pete, where I saw them on a regular basis. Then it makes it seem like dance belongs somewhere else, in some bigger city.
“But the truth of the matter is, most people can’t afford to live in a bigger city! So it doesn’t really belong somewhere else, it belongs in our city. But how do we do that, you know?”
Helen Hansen French is a tireless innovator who’s nourished and consistently re-charged by collaborations with visual artists, writers, musicians and other dancers. The mother of two small boys, she also teaches dance – when she can find the time.
She recently returned from three weeks in Berlin, where she finished up graduate school work through Virginia-based Hollins University.
The recipient of numerous grants from the City of St. Petersburg, Creative Pinellas and the Arts Alliance of St. Petersburg, French has performed in every venue – both traditional and non – on this side of the bay.
The Arts Alliance funded Capturing Dance, an innovative photography series that situated dancers, from all genres, in recognizable public places – see it here.
Through Creative Pinellas, she made an abstract film, Within the Bounding Line, which incorporated several St. Pete “mother artists” including Carrie Jadus, Maureen McDole, Becca McCoy and Elizabeth A. Baker (French was pregnant with her second son at the time).
She and fellow dancer/choreographer Lauren Slone created Beacon, an annual performance concert at the Palladium Theater, which is the very best – if not the only – showcase of innovative modern dance in the community.
“That really was a way for us to create a platform for dance to be seen, with no strings attached: When I wear the hat of producer and curator, my goal is to literally support what the creative artist wants to see onstage,” French explains. “That means I try very hard not to impose what I think they should or shouldn’t do. It’s really about supporting them. And that also means we raise all the money to do that.
“That’s something Lauren and I feel strongly about – artists need to have their voices heard, and sometimes donors come with strings … it’s just the fact of the matter. So Lauren and I can take that responsibility out of the hands of the creative artist, and kind of create an area for them to make work. And then we get to put our work on the program as well.”
Beacon returns April 3, 2020.
In mid-September, thestudio@620 will present a monthlong series of dance with social events, artist talks, lecture demonstrations and performances by local dance artists and companies. French will participate, although she doesn’t yet know what form her participation will take.
The Dance Hall Festival will also celebrate the works of photographer Tom Kramer, who shot, among other things, the first round of images for French’s Capturing Dance project.
She has numerous multi-disciplinary projects in various stages of gestation.
French is passionate about bringing movement, as a form of artistic communication, into the three-dimensional, everyday universe.
“Dance is how I understand the world around me,” she explains. “The actual embodiment of dance and movement is how I make sense of the world. And when we put it on a stage, there is always that fourth wall that separates you from the viewer. It has its place, and certainly I’ve spent a lot of time in that space. I love stagework.
“But I think when you take it off the stage, and you ‘bring it to the people,’ there’s a way of communicating that goes beyond words. In some realms it makes dance more accessible.
“So I’m really interested in how dance plays out in a larger context, off the stage but down in the community. Like what does that look like? How do I value it, and how in turn does the community value it?”