Tag Archives: Annika Sheaff

GroundWorks’ Versatile Performer Annika Sheaff Bids Adieu [Interview]


Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “LUNA” (2013). Photo by Mark Horning.

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.


Annika Sheaff impersonating a lawn sprinkler in Rosie Hererra’s “House Broken.” Photo by Mark Horning.

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.


Photo courtesy of GroundWorks DanceTheater.

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.


Sheaff and Manelich Minniefee dancing with Pilobolus in “Persistence of Memory” (2007). Photo courtesy of Pilobolus.

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.


Photo by Haley Jane Samuelson.


Photo by Abbey Roesner.

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.


Sheaff with Damien Highfield in David Shimotakahara’s “House of Sparrows” (2015). Photo by Mark Horning.


In Kate Weare’s “Inamorata.” Photo by Mark Horning.

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.


1 Comment

Filed under Airings

GroundWorks’ Otherworldly Program Worth Visiting


GroundWorks’ dancers Damien Highfield and Feslise Bagley in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

GroundWorks  DanceTheater – Spring Program
E.J. Thomas Hall at The University of Akron
Akron, OH
March 4, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

The sound of fierce winds whistled accompanied by the whir of a large fan as it came to life gaving texture to the image of dancer Felise Bagley, held aloft by two others, her long black hair being blown back she appeared to float like a gull caught in an updraft. The evocative image was the first salvo in a slew of several quiet, surreal moments in the world-premiere of New York choreographer Loni Landon’s “Falling Awake,” performed by Cleveland’s GroundWorks DanceTheater, Friday, March 4 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall.

That opening image of floating on air came from what Landon called “anxiety-filled” dreams after Hurricane Sandy. And as in her dreams, the image, in one form or another, reoccurred throughout the 30-minute work.

Danced to a sound collage that included environmental sounds and music by Zoe Keating, Nils Frahm and others, the work, for five dancers had a dream-like feel to it.  Lighting designer Dennis Duggan added to that feel by casting a shadowy veil over the stage that gave the work a slight cinematic feel. Perhaps a bit too understated, Duggan’s lighting could have been ramped up adding more lighting effects to augment shifts in the work’s dramatic mood .

Directed through the point of view of dancer Michael Marquez, Landon’s abstract choreography for the piece, she says, was meant to feel like “a continuous stream of consciousness.” But as in many dreams, that stream felt muddled in its direction and meaning. What we were left with was a meandering drift of dancers engaged in somewhat visually appealing movement.

Unfortunately, like other young choreographers, Landon’s choreography at times was plagued with overused contemporary dance devises such as performers touching and nudging one another to initiate motion, or seeming to wield Jedi powers to push and pull another’s body with a hand motion.  Where Landon shined was in the pacing of the work and the use of stillness in her choreography resulting in some breathtakingly beautiful moments.

“Falling Awake” had its dancers bent, tilted, twisted, swooping and swaying in a succession of solos, duets, trios and group choreography that often doubled back on itself repeating images, steps and movement phrases.

Expressive and musical with moments of dissonance and quiet splendor, “Falling Awake,” was a work with more promise than what it delivered. GroundWorks’ dancers however, performed it with precision and grace.


From 2014, GroundWorks’ Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.


GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.”

The program’s second half featured the reprise of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera” ( 2014).

Inspired by and danced to Chinese composer Tan Dun’s score of the same name, performed live by a string quintet of Cleveland Institute of Music graduates, “Ghost Opera” was truly a marriage of musician and dancer. The score, which blended classical contemporary and traditional Chinese music, featured the sounds of water being splashed, instrument bows being pulled over metal plates, and the rustling of paper. The wildly expressive composition with its multiple layers, at times evoked a sense of  being in contact with ancestral spirits and at other times, a sense of quiet mysticism.

As GroundWorks’ moved about the stage, so did the musicians who played standard string instruments, a Chinese Pipa (a four-stringed lute), banged stones together and in a Tourettes-like manner, vocalized ghostly utterances and shrills.

Shimotakahara’s abstract choreography for the piece was a solid mix of contemporary ballet and modern dance choreography that paired well with Dun’s music and a theme of ancestral spirits being called to convene with the living. The movement was contemplative, ritualistic at times, and fit the mood of the work. Like Landon’s imagery of a person hovering in air, Shimotakahara had a similar reference contained within a quirky solo by dancer Annika Sheaff where she lay across a wooden liquor crate with the word “spirits” on it like superwoman in flight.

Again, GroundWorks’ dancers were splendid, as were the accomplished musicians in the cast.

In the end GroundWorks’ Spring Program, like waking from a vivid dream, left one with many feelings, impressions and images worth remembering along with some that are best forgotten.

GroundWorks DanceTheaters’ Spring Program will repeat 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19, 2016 at St. Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for Performing Arts, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio. Tickets are $25.00/preferred, $20.00/general and $10.00/child & student; (216) 751-0088 or 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Dance Reviews 2016

GroundWorks’ ‘Spring Program’ Inspired by Dreams and Spirits


From 2014, GroundWorks’ Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

By Steve Sucato

All of us at one time or another have had a dream so vivid or bizarre that it stuck with us after we woke from it. Strong feelings, emotions and images that felt so real as to become a part of our memory. Such was the case for New York City-based choreographer Loni Landon, who sparked by a recurring image she held on to from several chaotic and anxiety-filled dreams she had after Hurricane Sandy, created a new dance work for GroundWorks DanceTheater. The company will premiere the yet-to-be-titled 30-minute contemporary dance work this weekend, March 4 & 5 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall. The program will then repeat March 18 & 19 in Cleveland at St. Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for Performing Arts.

“The piece is like a rolling dream ─ a fluid, abstract stream of consciousness,” says Landon by phone from New York.  She also sees the work like as being like a surreal movie organized into scenes. “One scene is a trio, another, a duet, all with different tones,” she says. The piece takes shape around a single character’s point of view. That character, danced by GroundWork’s Michael Marquez, is part of a non-linear storyline Landon likens to a David Lynch movie.

The work is also scored like a movie soundtrack with an eclectic mix of classical, contemporary classical and pop music.


Choreographer Loni Landon. Photo by Mallory Lynn.

A Juilliard graduate who danced with Aszure Barton and Artists, Ballet Theater Munich, and The Metropolitan Opera before becoming an award-winning freelance choreographer, Landon has created works for Keigwin + Company, BODYTRAFFIC, Hubbard Street II, BalletX, Ballet Austin, Seattle’s Whim W’Him, and her own company, Loni Landon Dance Projects.

“I work in a very collaborative way,” says Landon. “I kept pushing them [GroundWork’s dancers] to have more input while we were working together.”

One of those dancers being pushed was Landon’s classmate at Juilliard, Annika Sheaff who turned her on to the company who she describes as unique. “The dancers are all very different from each other – different styles, personalities, experiences, training – I’ve never met such a diverse group before,” says Landon.

The work’s creation process of was a quick one. Landon had just two weeks to put together the bones of the work whose choreography is derived from a single movement phrase that is manipulated, picked apart and strung together.  “The work is more theatrical than I tend to go,” says Landon. “We are using a set and props.”


From 2014, GroundWorks’ Annika Sheaff in David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo by Dale Dong.

GO DSC_0446

GroundWorks dancers in a recent rehearsal of David Shimotakahara’s “Ghost Opera.” Photo courtesy of GroundWorks DanceTheater.

Where Landon’s work stems from a dream image, the reprise of GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera takes its inspiration Chinese composer Tan Dun’s score of the same name that delves into spirits and the supernatural found in shamanistic “ghost operas” popular in Chinese peasant culture. Says Dun: the composition uses “very ancient theatrical methods to approach a modern idea, linking the different kinds of territory across media and across lives, and across decades, and let all those souls talk to each other.”

The score, which features the sounds of water, stones, metal, paper the Chinese Pipa (a four-stringed lute) will be played live Cleveland Institute of Music graduates Solomon Liang (Violin 1), Andrea Belding (Violin 2), Aaron Mossburg (Viola), Erica Snowden (Cello) and Yihan Chen (Pipa).

Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera originally premiered during GroundWorks’ 2014 season. In a review of the work performed at Akron’s Glendale Cemetery I wrote for Canada’s Dance International magazine, I said “Shimotakahara’s choreography ebbed and flowed between the dancers en masse huddling and cleaving to each other and duets and solos that spoke of earth, family and, oddly enough, the music of Bach and the writings of Shakespeare.”

No doubt the work will have a different feel on the stage at E.J. Thomas Hall but promises to be no less powerful and haunting.

GroundWorks DanceTheater presents its Spring Series program, 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 4 and Saturday, March 5, 2016 at The University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, 198 Hill St, Akron, OH. Tickets are $25.00/general and $10.00/child & student. (330) 253-2488, uaevents.com or groundworksdance.org.

The Spring Series program will repeat 7:30 p.m., Friday, March 18 and Saturday, March 19, 2016 at St. Ignatius High School’s Breen Center for Performing Arts, 2008 West 30th Street, Cleveland, Ohio. Tickets are $25.00/preferred, $20.00/general and $10.00/child & student; (216) 751-0088 or 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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Airings