Of Sideshows, Photo Memories and Atoms: GroundWorks Dance Theater’s ‘Summer Series’ Promises a Carnival of Visual Delights


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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

By Steve Sucato

Childhood memories of Looney Tunes cartoons and circus sideshows provided the creative spark for GroundWorks DanceTheater artistic director/choreographer David Shimotakahara’s latest dance work, “Sud Buster’s Dream”. The animated work will make its premiere as part of GroundWorks’ season opening Summer Series program this weekend, July 19-21 at Cain Park’s Alma Theater in Cleveland Heights.

The 30-minute contemporary dance work is set to an early American jazz score, a type of music Shimotakahara says he has always been drawn to since hearing it as the backdrop to the cartoons he watched as a child.

“I was always thinking it would be fun to do a work with cartoon movement zaniness; like where the dog gets stretched into a hot dog, a giraffe’s neck gets twirled up like a pretzel stick or where feet dance without a body,” says Shimotakahara.

Using those images and that style of music as a starting point, Shimotakahara says he was also inspired by images from iconic sideshow acts such as sword swallowers, The Seal Boy, The Bearded Lady and The Siamese Twins as further influences for movement invention in the work.  

“Those popular acts represented what people felt was odd and unusual,” says Shimotakahara. “Then, and now, we see oddities in ‘the other’ and fear being cast as such.” 

In a recent rehearsal of the work I sat in on, second –year company dancer Annie Morgan moved through a solo that twisted her fingers, arms and legs up in knots, almost immobilizing her.  Shimotakahara says with that imagery he was thinking back to escape artists like Harry Houdini wriggling and twisting to free themselves from ropes, chains or a straitjacket in their acts. Morgan had a less challenging task to untwist herself.

The work features a large stage curtain set piece from which its five dancers emerge from to perform various dances. The set piece lends a “show within a show” motif to the bizarrely entertaining work. Titled after one of the period songs used in it by Tiny Parham and his Musicians, Shimotakahara also draws parallels to The Roaring Twenties period of the last century and to the changes in culture, the opportunities available to the populous and the great disparity of wealth, to what is going on in the country today. “There were definitely winners and losers,” says Shimotakahara.

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GroundWorks’ Annie Morgan. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

Also premiering on the 17th annual Summer Series program at Cain Park will be award-winning Chicago choreographer Robyn Mineko Williams’ latest commissioned work for the company, “We Three”.  The 17-minute piece is performed to a suite of songs by Canadian music group Timber Timbre including their 2011 hit “Lonesome Hunter”.  Says Mineko Williams by phone from Michigan, “I like creating worlds that feel timeless. Each section [of the work] makes sense in the order it is presented, but maybe that’s not the real story’s order.”

Continuing a recurring pattern present in her recent works of assembling a series of non-linear memories that are played out in vignettes by the dancers, Mineko Williams compares “We Three’s” viewing experience to leafing through a photo album where each of the photos you look at comes to life for a few seconds. The viewer then decides what story or relationship to attach to those in the photos.  “I don’t know what the relationship is between the characters in work,” says the former dance with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer. “But in my imagination they all existed in these photos together. There is a lot of reflection going on with the characters in the work. It could be reflections on relationships with the other characters in the work or a reflection of themselves. ”

From the relationship of human beings to the relationship of the relative combining capacity of an atom, a reprise of GroundWorks artistic associate Amy Miller’s “Valence” (2009) rounds out the works on the program.

Created to an original sound score by composer Peter Swendsen, Dean of the Conservatory at Oberlin College and Conservatory, the 20-minute “Valence” began as an exploration of how dance could become music and music could become dance,” says Miller. “The overall visual concept work uses circular running patterns not unlike the electrons in every atom setting up collisions of these orbits that manifest in the form of dancer duets, trios and group sections.  Each dancer ends up having a different ‘valence’ or capacity to connect with every other dancer.  I think the piece also reminds us of the power of connection to create great things in an often chaotic world.”

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GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara (rear) rehearsing with new dancers Spencer Dennis (left) and Michael Arellano. Photo courtesy of GroundWorks Dance Theater.

New to GroundWorks this season are dancers Michael Arellano, a recent graduate of Western Michigan University, and Phoenix, Arizona-native Spencer Dennis. The pair replace departing dancers Robert Rubama and Tyler Ring. Arellano and Dennis together with returning dancers Morgan, Alexis Britford and Nicole Hennington make up perhaps GroundWorks’ youngest company to date.

After this weekend’s performances at Cain Park, the Summer Series program will be repeated in free performances at Akron’s Goodyear Metro Park on August 2 & 3 as part of The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series, 7 p.m., Friday, July 19 & Saturday, July 20 and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 21. Alma Theater, Cain Park, 14591 Superior Road, Cleveland Heights, Ohio.  Tickets are $25/advance, $28/day of show. For tickets and information visit: https://www.cainpark.com/281/GroundWorks-Dancetheater or call (216) 371-3000.

GroundWorks Dance Theater presents its Summer Series in Akron, 8:45 p.m., Friday, August 2 & Saturday, August 3 at Goodyear Metro Park, 2077 Newton St, Akron, Ohio. FREE admission. For more information visit http://akrondancefestival.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.

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