By Steve Sucato
This weekend’s free outdoor performances of GroundWorks DanceTheater at Akron’s Goodyear Heights Metro Park as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival mark the conclusion of their 2017 Summer Series program. The performances, Friday, August 4 and Saturday, August 5, will also be the swan song of popular GroundWorks company member Annika Sheaff who will be leaving the company to become Baldwin Wallace University’s newest assistant professor of dance. Sheaff’s departure, along with the recent departures from the company by dancers Michael Marquez and Lauren Garson at the end of last season and Stephanie Terasaki prior to that who made a big impression filling in for Sheaff when she was on maternity leave, represent a big change in the makeup and personality of Cleveland’s most respected contemporary dance company. Marquez was replaced by Tyler Ring, a native of Muncie, Indiana who recently performed with Thodos Dance Chicago, and Buffalo-native Gemma Freitas Bender, a former dancer with Montreal’s BJM Danse replaced Garson. They join longtime company members Felice Bagley and Damien Highfield for this season.
While dancers come and go in most every dance company with relative frequency, Sheaff’s presence in GroundWorks, while somewhat brief, loomed large as she was an audience and critics favorite for her unending versatility as a performer. The 33-year-old Juilliard graduate and former dancer with renowned dance company Pilobolus, brought to her dancing in GroundWorks not only solid technique, but a stage presence that drew audience eyeballs to her as if she were somehow constantly lit by an invisible spotlight. Her acting skills and range are like a combination of Lucille Ball and Meryl Streep’s ─ able to as easily bring smiles and laughter to audience members as elicit their empathy and tears. The job of trying to fill Sheaff’s big shoes will fall to GroundWork’s newest member Taylor Johnson, a fellow classmate of Bender and Marquez at Juilliard and who begins her GroundWorks journey this month.
I talked with Sheaff recently about her dance career, her time with GroundWorks and her future plans.
Steve Sucato: Where are you originally from?
Annika Sheaff: From the suburbs of Chicago, specifically Oak Park [Illinois].
SS: When did you start dancing and why?
AS: I was super fortunate in that the preschool my mother sent me to was attached to an amazing dance school so when I was three I kept seeing all these people doing dance classes and I told my mom I wanted to do it. She signed me up and I never stopped. It was a really cool dance school called The Academy of Movement and Music and from a super young age I was studying ballet, modern and jazz and we did historical works from Isadora Duncan and Doris Humphrey.
SS: How long did you study there?
AS: From ages 3-18. When I was in high school at the Chicago Academy of the Arts every day I would have my academics classes from 8am-1pm, then take dance technique classes and afterwards would drive to The Academy of Movement and Music and repeat my technique classes and have rehearsals until about 9 pm. [Looking back] I don’t know how I did it.
SS: When did you decide on dance as a career?
AS: Towards the end of high school I knew that I really loved dancing but at that time I didn’t know if that was what I wanted to do with my life. Because my parents were literally saving lives every day with their jobs, a career in dance to me felt quite selfish. It took a lot of mentors to help me realize that a career in dance was not selfish. If you are performing and are being very generous with your gifts you give people a way to escape from their troubles. It wasn’t until I saw a performance of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 [Writer’s note: Minus 16 is a contemporary masterwork that contains much to bring joy including an audience participation section) that I really understood why dance was so important and decided to dedicate my life to it.
SS: Was it a tough process getting into Juilliard?
AS: I went into the whole thing with the attitude I am probably not going to get. My mom told me I wasn’t going to get in. I think she said that so I wouldn’t get my hopes up but at the time that was quite hard to have her say that to me so directly. I went to the audition to do it as an experience. I got through the ballet section and thought cool, then I got through modern and it was like oh my god, what’s happening? Then they asked me to do my solo and I felt now this is really serious and I need to dance really well because they are actually considering me. Later when I got the call that I got in I was pretty shocked. It was exciting and validating.
SS: Was joining Pilobolus something you had your eye on?
AS: My goal when I was a senior at Juilliard was to graduate with a dancing job. I didn’t care if that was with Nederlands Dans Theater or on a cruise ship. I just knew I didn’t want to wait tables and dance part-time. I auditioned for everything. I didn’t even know who Pilobolus was but I saw this notice at school that said they were looking for a woman and I decided to go. I showed up at the audition and there were like 150 women there and we were doing all this crazy stuff and I thought I was doing terribly but I kept advancing [through the audition rounds]. Later they had us up to Connecticut [at Pilobolus’ studios] for two days and it was super hard. I was doing all these things I had never done before. Then it got down to five women and finally I got the job having no idea what Pilobolus was. Afterward, I did some research on the company and went to see them perform and I was completely terrified. I was like, I don’t know why they hired me, I’m not that strong, I can’t move like that. That first year with them was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life besides having a baby.
SS: What was your time with them like?
AS: Once I started to get the hang of things after a year and a half it was so amazing. It was an incredible company to work for and so much fun. I really grew as an artist and in my views of what can be accepted as dance. I feel like my whole world got kind of busted open in a good way by Pilobolus.
SS: How did you end up coming to GroundWorks?
AS: My husband is originally from Shaker Heights and every Christmas we would go there to visit family. I thought it was an amazing community and such a great place to one day try to settle down. So once I left Pilobolus and was freelancing as a dancer for a while, I started researching if there were any dance companies in Cleveland that I could potentially work for so we could move. I stumbled across GroundWorks and learning about the company, I thought it was amazing that a company of only five dancers was doing work from all of these highly acclaimed choreographers from all over and had full-time dancer contracts. It seemed too good to be true. In 2010 they had an opening I auditioned for and didn’t get and then in 2012 they had another audition and I didn’t hired. Then two months after the second audition David [Shimotakahara, company artistic director] called me in to replace one of the dancers who was pregnant [and later decided not to return].
SS: In your 5-years with GroundWorks what have been some of your favorite roles?
AS: Kate Weare’s piece “Inamorata.” She came here in 2013 and her and I had a really good connection. She gave me a role I could really chew on and is still interesting to dance now after 5-years [the work will be reprised on this weekend’s program in Akron]. I love starting and ending [my career with GroundWorks] in the same role. I also loved working with Johannes Wieland [on his 2014 work wait. now. go. now]. He really challenged me asking me to do things no one else in my entire career had asked me to such as memorizing a bunch of things and to wear a cowboy outfit and lose my mind into a microphone. The other person that immediately comes to mind is [choreographer] Rosie Hererra she made me laugh the entire she was here [working on her 2014 work “House Broken”]. She was able to look at us as individuals and highlight all of our strengths. I feel so fortunate to have been with the company and that in my short time here I got to help create over fifteen new works.
SS: While you are retiring from GroundWorks you are not retiring from dance. You have done dance on film projects and have choreographed in the past, will we see more of that in the future?
AS: My plan, once things settle down with my new job, is to try and submit the dance films I have already made to festivals nationally and internationally depending on what makes sense. I want to do things with the works I have already made before I start making new ones.
For her final performances this weekend Sheaff will dance in all three works on the program including Weare’s “Inamorata,” Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic” and in the Akron premiere of Monica Bill Barnes’ tour de force “Tonight’s the night.” Click here to read my preview of the production.
GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2017 Summer Series dance program as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival at dusk (8:45 p.m.), Friday, August 4 and Saturday, August 5. Goodyear Heights Metro Park, 2077 Newton St., Akron. Admission is Free. More information at groundworksdance.org.
Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.