Carol Erkes Hands Florida Dance Theatre to a New Generation

Carol Erkes

Carol Erkes didn’t imagine she would go from being a dancer to an impresario, managing an arts organization instead of creating art. “I never had any intention of getting to where we are today. It snowballed,” she said.

Erkes retired in June as the executive and artistic director of Florida Dance Theatre, the professional dance company she founded in 1993 as a ballet school.

Today, on the cusp of its 26th season, the nonprofit company has a $350,000 budget, eight full-time administrators and dancers, three major performances on the schedule and an array of new ventures in the works. In addition, the FDT Academy has 82 students taking dance classes in its downtown studio.

The theatre will hold a gala in her honor at 7 p.m. on Sept. 27 at Haus 820, 820 N. Massachusetts Ave. Tickets, $65, are available online.

Erkes, 65, cited the pressure of fundraising and managing the company as the reason for her decision to give up daily management duties.

“To be perfectly honest, the past five years I’ve been a business person, not an artist. I’ve spent my time looking for money. It’s tough. Funding has been cut at the state level. We’ve really scrambled the past five years,” she said.

The theatre is now run by a trio who have been with FDT for several years as dancers. Jermaine Thornton is the new executive director, Stefan Dolbashian has assumed the role of artistic director and Molly Ahler is the director of the academy. All three will continue to perform occasionally as dancers.

On Monday, Mayor Bill Mutz read a proclamation honoring Carol Erkes at the Lakeland City Commission meeting. Joining them were, from left, Molly Ahler, Jermaine Thronton and Stefan Dolbashian.

Erkes, a native of Ohio, is a classically trained dancer who performed in the major works of the repertoire, such as “Swan Lake,” with some big companies in the Midwest.

“I was a little ballerina, and I loved it,” she said. “I lived in pointe shoes nine hours a day.”

Erkes and her husband, Dr. Rod Erkes, moved to Polk County when he took a position with the Bond Clinic. She danced with the Orlando Ballet for a few years but got tired of commuting. In 1993, noticing a gap in formal dance instruction in the area, she started a school originally called the Lakeland Ballet. She changed the name the following year to Florida Dance Theatre to encompass styles other than classical ballet.

The company expanded enough for Erkes to hire a couple of professional dancers, and soon she got resumes from around the country and overseas. At one point she had 11 dancers on the payroll. The company didn’t have the resources to mount productions of big traditional ballets, so Erkes focused on creating dances that included both classical and contemporary styles.

Like most fine arts organizations, the Florida Dance Theatre wrestles with the question of appealing to older fans and new audiences. Erkes is upbeat about the company’s prospects.

“Ballet sounds kind of scary to some people. We throw the classics in, but younger people like contemporary stuff,” she said.

A promotional video for Florida Dance Theatre’s 2016 “Celebrate Dance:”

She pointed to two recent original productions that proved popular with the public. “Dracula,” performed just before Halloween, was “classically based,” she said, but used contemporary music to carry the familiar vampire tale. In a collaboration with the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, a production of “Peter Pan” mixed classical and contemporary music and “people loved it,” she said.

The upcoming season will continue in the fantasy vein, with an original production in October of “The Golden Ticket,” a dance version of Roald Dahl’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In February, the theatre will give a performance based on Grimm’s fairy tales.

“I don’t think (‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’) has ever been done as a dance production. All the music is jazzy and kind of hip-hop, it’s a contemporary style,” Thornton said. “These are family-friendly, but we’re not going to get rid of more dramatic productions.”

Thornton, 35, who joined the company in 2012 as a dancer and teacher, now has the task of carrying Florida Dance Theatre forward. Over the years, he has helped Erkes with research and administrative tasks, and he was her choice to be executive director. He said the task of running the company, including fundraising, is “daunting,” but he trusts the resources Erkes has developed.

“One thing I’ve noticed in seven years is that as the audience changes, we have so many layers of supporters. We have people who are used to dance and feel like everybody in the community should experience it. We also have people who know nothing and need to be educated,” he said.

Thornton said the theatre is planning to expand its outreach to the public schools, especially with Title I schools, and is working on a relationship with Crystal Lake Elementary.

“Once you see the lack of opportunity, it motivates you. Through the arts, we can provide a positive pathway,” he said.

In the coming season, the theatre will also participate in a benefit for The Hope Movement, a cancer support group, and give a performance at an arts and technology summit sponsored by the Florida Polytechnic University Arts Lab.

Erkes said she “wore too many hats” in running Florida Dance Theatre and wanted to ensure that responsibilities were shared after she retired.

“I knew it couldn’t be just one person. Stefan, Jermaine and Molly have been with me long enough; they understand how things work. The people I chose will continue my vision of building an audience, traveling more and increasing outreach,” she said.

Erkes will not disappear from the Florida Dance Theatre, however.

“I’m not gone. It’s my baby,” she said. “I can come in and work in the studio, especially with the little ones, because I love it.”

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