Tag Archives: David Shimotakahara

GroundWorks’ Versatile Performer Annika Sheaff Bids Adieu [Interview]


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Photo by Haley Jane Samuelson.

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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.

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

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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.

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New Work Pushes GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Dancers as Athletes and Performers


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GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Felise Bagley and Annika Sheaff in Kate Weare’s “Inamorata.” Photo by Mark Horning.

By Steve Sucato

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The old dog of sorts being Northeast, Ohio’s GroundWorks Dance Theater, now in its 17th season who, in its upcoming summer series programs at Cain Park, July 14-16, and as part of the Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival, August 4-5 at Akron’s Goodyear Heights Metro Park, will present a world-premiere dance work unlike any trick the company has performed.

One of three works on the program that includes reprises of  NYC-based choreographer Kate Weare’s 2013 work for the company “Inamorata,” and GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic” (2016), is choreographer Monica Bill Barnes’ “Tonight’s the night,” a new work created on the company that represents a seismic stylistic shift compared to the troupe’s usual more flowy repertory.

Barnes sees the new work as a continuation of the type of dance pieces she loves to create and that she has been known for over the past couple decades, works that “celebrate individuality, humor, and the innate theatricality of everyday life.”

A Berkeley, California-native, Barnes received her B.A. in Philosophy from the University of California at San Diego before moving to NYC in 1995 where she formed Monica Bill Barnes & Company two years later. Barnes was lesser known outside the big apple dance scene, where she is now one of the queens of its “new” old guard, that is until she teamed up with lanky, spectacled radio host, Ira Glass of National Public Radio’s popular series This American Life for Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host in 2013. Since then her career and visibility outside NYC has taken off, touring the show with Glass and longtime collaborator/dance partner Anna Bass, to sold-out houses in over 60 U.S. cities and garnering rave reviews.

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Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes (foreground) in-studio with GroundWorks’ dancer Gemma Freitas Bender creating “Tonight’s the night”. Photo by Mark Horning.

The 15-minute “Tonight’s the night,” set to an eclectic mix of recorded music from Louis Prima and Bach’s The Goldberg Variations to an aria from Puccini’s Turandot and Modern English’s new wave classic “I Melt with You,” has the energy of a supercharged cross-training workout video come to life. In it, Barnes using her signature “in your face” movement style, creates a sports culture-infused, team-building exercise-like barrage of high-energy choreography for adrenaline-fueled characters whose non-stop antics will leave audiences not only breathless, but perhaps a bit intimated.

Says Barnes: “I think with everything I make I am interested in creating a relationship with the audience ─ for them to invest in the experience more than just admiring the dancers. That manifests itself in some ridiculously obvious theatrical tricks of the trade like asking the dancers to [enthusiastically] clap then stop. There is some real involvement that feels pretty basic but on a larger scale I am trying to find different ways for the audience to relate and engage with the performer.”

Barnes sees her sports metaphor-themed choreography for the work as part of her constant search for common gestures or physical situations that real people who aren’t trained dancers can relate to. She says the borrowing of sports imagery in this work is part of that.

For GroundWorks’ five dancers including brand new company members 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 (the two replace Michael Marquez and Lauren Garson who left the company at the end of last season), the work is a killer. In a recent rehearsal of it I took in, GroundWorks dancers, while seemingly pushed to their physical limits, appeared to embrace Barnes challenging choreography with the similar zeal Bass and Barnes put into their own performances, aggressively moving about like genial brawlers and punctuating each transition between dance phrases with a snap of the body.

“I think these five performers are doing a wonderful job at being relatable which is not something we necessarily trained to work for as professional dancers,” says Barnes.

Bender, who will make her GroundWorks debut at Cain Park, says of working with Barnes for the second time (the first was as a student at Juilliard), that “there is a reason for everything she does and I admire that. She talks a lot about professional comedians and their [masterful] timing and tying it to the choreography and musicality of the work and our performances in it.”

Bender will also perform in the program’s other two works. Of Weare’s work “Inamorata” (meaning “a woman in love” in Latin), Bender says, “It is so beautiful. After watching it the first time I was so elated at getting to dance in it. [Performing it] I think about faith and those things we as humans hold onto to stay strong.”

Like Barnes’ work, “Inamorata” is set to variety of music ranging from tango and folk music to a Bach cello suite. Weare previously described the work as being “a survey of love from many different vantage points, and more from a feminine perspective than a masculine one.” 

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(L-R) GroundWorks’ Lauren Garson, Stephanie Terasaki and Michael Marquez in David Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Rounding out the program will be Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic,” a 20-minute piece set to a suite player piano roll-inspired music by American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912 –1997). The work says Shimotakahara explores parallel ideas found in the music to develop a physical disconnect in the way the dancers move.

Coming from a larger company like BJM Danse with more dancers and who tours frequently all over the world, Bender, at this point in her newly-married life, says she likes the intimacy and family atmosphere of GroundWorks. Being able to come home after work and see her husband Will, who is a violist and recent masters’ graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music is also a big draw. “I love the work and the people [at GroundWorks],” says Bender. “I feel very grateful.”

GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2017 Summer Series dance program, 7 p.m., Friday, July 14 & Saturday, July 15 and 2 p.m., Sunday, July 16. Cain Park’s Alma Theater, 14591 Superior Rd., Cleveland Heights. $25 Advance, $28 Day of show. groundworksdance.org/tickets, cainpark.com or (216) 371-3000.

The program repeats 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.

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Sophisticated Choreography Highlights GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Fall Concert Series


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(L-R) GroundWorks’ Lauren Garson, Stephanie Terasaki and Michael Marquez in David Shimotakahara’s “Chromatic.” Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater
2016 Fall Concert Series
Akron-Summit County Library
Akron, Ohio
November 18-19, 2016

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

After a successful run in Cleveland at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre in October, Cleveland-based GroundWorks DanceTheater’s 2016 Fall Concert Series moved to nearby Akron and the Akron-Summit County Library. The program on November 18 opened with the latest work by GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara entitled “Chromatic.” The 20-minute piece set to a suite of music by American composer Conlon Nancarrow (1912 –1997) was a stylistic departure for Shimotakahara in the type of movement he created for the troupe’s five dancers.

Costumed in the colors of piano keys, the dancers engaged in a form of movement split personality. From the waist down, they adopted simple dance poses. From the waist up, they were a flurry of activity with hands and arms moving up and down and side-to-side seemingly without regard to rhythm.

Shimotakahara’s unconventional choreography was a reaction to Nancarrow’s cacophony of player piano music that sounded like three different songs being played simultaneously. The effect of both the dance and music was unnerving yet compelling rejecting staid notions of dance as pleasantry. The work’s succession of solos, duets and group dancing found grace and a modicum of humor in sometimes stiff movement, dancers falling and the slapping of hands on thighs.

Next former Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancer Robyn Mineko Williams’ new commission for GroundWorks, “Part Way,” set a different tone. Danced to Rachmaninoff’s doleful “Trio Elégiaque No. 1 in G Minor,” Williams’ fluid choreography on the dancers cascaded like water tumbling over rocks in a gently flowing stream. GroundWorks’ five dancers touched, grasped, leaned into and folded over each in beautifully-crafted contemporary dance movement. Rachmaninoff’s music and Williams’ choreographic reaction to it, built a tension in the work that spilled out over the stage that was piqued by brief moments of distress and distraction displayed in the dancer’s demeanor. One such moment happened during an intertwining pas de deux danced by Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in which Bagley, lifted above Highfield’s head, looked sharply about as if her name had been called out from somewhere off in the distance.

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(L-R) GroundWorks’ Lauren Garson, Michael Marquez and Stephanie Terasaki in Robyn Mineko Williams’ “Part Way.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Also of note in the piece, was a solo by Stephanie Terasaki in which she appeared to be pulled backward by her head by some unseen force.  Her body undulated and gave into gravity and her momentum elegantly collapsed to the stage floor at times.

With “Part Way,” Williams created a sophisticated dance work marrying finely crafted contemporary dance movement with emotional vulnerability and drama. It was performed deftly by GroundWorks’ dancers and is a work well worth revisiting by the company.

On the subject of works worth revisiting, the program concluded with a revamped version of Pittsburgh-based dancer/choreographer Beth Corning’s “At Once There Was A House.”

Created on GroundWorks in 2004, the funny and poignant dance-theater piece is one of Corning’s most memorable and best.

Posing the question: Whatever happened to Dick and Jane? – those idealized elementary school educational icons used to teach children in the U.S. to read from the 1930’s through the 1970’s, “At Once There Was A House” catches up with a dysfunctional group of Dick and Janes who life has appeared to have done a number on.

The setting for the dance-theater work was a reunion of sorts where this collection of stereotypical characters (jock, wallflower, prude) with some not-so-stereotypical emotional issues, paraded about to Tom Waits’ song “Table Top Joe” and spoke to the audience as if they were old acquaintances.

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(L-R) GroundWorks’ Lauren Garson, Stephanie Terasaki, Damien Highfield, Felise Bagley and Michael Marquez in Beth Corning’s “At Once There Was A House.” Photo by Mark Horning.

Dancer Lauren Garson was the former homecoming/prom queen, Highfield, the bombastic former star athlete turned car salesman, Terasaki, a nervous shrinking violet, dancer Michael Marquez as a flamboyant character and Bagley as a prudish neat freak who scolded Marquez for his cartoonish pelvic gyrations, calling to him “inappropriate.”

Like a lyric from Waits’ song, “And I dreamed I’d be famous,” the characters appeared to regret in some way how their lives had turned out.

Costumed in white schoolboy and schoolgirl-ish dresses and shorts, the audience got a glimpse into the lives of each of the characters via a series of vignettes that elicited a laugh or broke your heart. From Marquez poignantly dancing behind a life-size puppet in a skirt to a disillusioned Garson dancing a duet with a length of white picket fence and lamenting that the stereotypical American dream wasn’t all it was cracked up to be for her, “At Once There Was A House” touched that universal nerve called empathy.

The most thoughtful, melancholy and gripping performance however belonged to Bagley, whose character’s anger and sorrow lay exposed like an open wound. In a most telling scene, Bagley, seemingly bereft of joy and happiness, set aflame a metal dollhouse, and true to her character’s nature it was a neatly controlled burn; one that perhaps symbolized the controlled burning rage and heartache within her.

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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