Tag Archives: Johannes Wieland

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.


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Broken Hearts and Broken Minds Highlight GroundWorks’ Emotionally Penetrating Fall Program

GroundWorks dancers in Johannes Wieland’s wait. now. go. now.  Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks dancers in Johannes Wieland’s wait. now. go. now. Photo by Mark Horning.

GroundWorks DanceTheater – Fall Program
October 24-25, 2014
Allen Theatre at PlayhouseSquare
Cleveland, OH

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Whoever coined the phrase “bigger is better” could not have accounted for what Cleveland-based GroundWorks DanceTheater has been able to accomplish with just five dancers.  In its 16th season the tiny troupe led by artistic director David Shimotakahara has an impressive body of work by a host of  prominent  choreographers.  With a focus on the creation of new dance works from established and up and coming choreographers the company continues to amaze. Their Fall dance program at PlayhouseSquare’s Allen Theatre in Cleveland proved no different bringing together three marvelous dance works created for the company that included the world-premiere of German choreographer Johannes Wieland’s wait. now. go. now.

The well-balanced program on October 24 began with a reprise of choreographer Gina Gibney’s 2003 work, Always.  Set to five heartfelt songs from Patsy Cline’s “The Last Sessions” album, the piece opened on dancer Noelle Cotler center stage, in spotlight, spinning in place as Cline’s “Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You)” figuratively poured from a jukebox set piece at the rear of the stage. Swirling her head and torso, Cotler vacillated between expressions of pensiveness and defiance thinking of some unseen lover.

A mostly sweet, sensitive and occasionally humorous work, Always climbed aboard the roller coaster called love and rode through a series of vignettes that illustrated the ups and downs of romantic relationships.

Next, performing to Cline’s “Love Letters in the Sand,” Cotler became the object of affection for dancers Damien Highfield and Troy Macklin who vied for her attention and the honor of holding her beach skirt.  The two men engaged in a tug of war with it before Cotler coquettishly stepped between them and humorously into the skirt.

The work’s most engaging vignette followed in which dancer Annika Sheaff sheepishly made dreamy eyes at a disheartened Highfield who lost Cotler to Macklin.  Danced to Cline’s “You Took Him Off My Hands,” the pair performed a slow-motion courtship around the jukebox as a distracted Cotler, in the arms of Macklin, stole regretful glances toward Highfield.

The original “shoegazer” music, Cline’s melodic and melancholy songs created a hazy atmosphere for Always in which Gibney’s gestural choreography flourished. Its vignettes about longing and heartache struck familiar emotional chords to all of us.


Whereas Always presented common relationship realities, Wieland’s dance-theater work wait. now. go. now., delved into what appeared to be a break from reality.

On a bare stage devoid of curtains and drops, Macklin – as Cotler did in Always, only with more veracity – spun in circles until he fell to the floor while Sheaff dragged the limp body of Highfield across the floor behind him.

Like some acid trip dance club adventure, Wieland created a psychotic world driven by sensuality, sexual tension, jealousy and bitterness that exploded in emotional turmoil and mental unbalance.

A snippet from late disco queen Donna Summer’s 1977 hit “I Feel Love” began, stopped, and began again. The dancers lip sank “Oooh I got” over and over with increasing intensity. This oddly compelling exercise set the tone for a series of disturbing episodes where vulnerable and agitated characters lashed out at one another while appearing to need to be cared for and consoled  by those they lashed  out at.

Two white theater lights on moving pedestals pushed around by the dancers lit the stage creating a surreal atmosphere where riffs of aggressive physical dancing gave way to moments of quiet and blank stares.  Sheaff was brilliant as a woman on the edge, her fragile emotional state burst with volatility. Equally compelling was the performance of dancer Felise Bagley, who after donning a white spangled western outfit and cowboy hat, grabbed a microphone and sang along to American singer-songwriter Matthew Houck’s (a.k.a. Phosphorescent) catchy tune “Ride On/Right On”.  A nervous and somewhat self-conscious Bagley then gave way to Highfield grabbing the mic and singing the same tune until Sheaff exploded into a tirade, chiding him, and repeating “Really…come on, come on… ride on…that’s your theme song?” Her dramatic intensity and maniacal laugh a perfect microcosm of Wieland’s bizarre but memorable work performed skillfully and passionately by GroundWorks’ dancers.


Rounding out the program was choreographer Ronen Koresh’s CoDa (2011), set to music by French composer Rene Aubry.  Much like the works he has created for his own Philadelphia-based Koresh Dance Company, Koresh employed a movement style that mixed ballet, modern, jazz and Israeli folk dance for CoDa.

The dancers engaged in large sweeping arm movements, skips, stooped-body sidles, somersaults and cartwheels in the multi-section work.  Dancers pushed and shoved one another in violent struggles and poured their hearts out in dramatic, expertly-crafted choreography that ran the gambit of emotional experiences from joyful to deeply troubled.  The work was a fitting closer to GroundWorks’ stellar program of dance.

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World-Renowned Choreographers’ Works to be Showcased by GroundWorks DanceTheater in Cleveland


GroundWorks - Sweet - Felise and Damien

By Beth Rutkowski

GroundWorks DanceTheater will perform the works of three of dance world’s finest choreographers at PlayhouseSquare’s  Allen Theater in Cleveland on Friday, October 24th and Saturday, October 25th.  These performances comprise:

  • The world premiere of German choreographer Johannes Wieland’s now. go now.

Johannes Wieland is the Artistic Director/Choreographer of the resident dance company at the State Theatre of Kassel, Germany. A native German and former principal dancer with the Béjart Ballet Lausanne and Berlin’s State Opera, he established his company, Johannes Wieland, in New York in 2002. Since then, he has been developing a singular body of work that has garnered critical acclaim from The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Village Voice, and many other national and international publications, amongst them Dance Magazine, which cited him as one of the “25 to Watch” in January 2003. His duet, shift, won Germany’s 2004 Kurt Jooss Prize and he is also a winner of the 2004 Hubbard Street 2 National Choreographic Competition.

In addition to leading his own companies, Wieland was Associate Artistic Director of PARADIGM (New York), and is a guest choreographer and teacher at companies and schools around the world. He holds a BFA from the University of Amsterdam, and an MFA from NYU/Tisch School of the Arts.


– CoDa, by Philadelphia choreographer, Ronen Koresh.

Ronen (Roni) Koresh is a choreographer, teacher and collaborator whose unique blend of ballet, modern and jazz leaves audiences dazzled by the raw passion that is infused into his movement. He formed Koresh Dance Company in 1991 and quickly established an international reputation for highly technical and emotionally charged work. With a gift for movement creation, Roni refuses to settle on a technique, instead defining himself by a signature style of ever evolving movement. Koresh has choreographed for dance companies throughout the U.S. as well as South Korea, Japan, Turkey and Israel, where he was born and raised. He formed the Koresh Dance Company, based in Philadelphia, PA, in 1991.


– Always (homage to the music of Patsy Cline) created in collaboration with New York choreographer, Gina Gibney.

Highly sought-after by a wide range of performing arts institutions, Gina Gibney’s work has been featured in recent years by such venues as Danspace Project (New York), White Bird (Oregon) the Yale Repertory Theater (Connecticut), L’Agora de la Danse (Montreal, Canada), and Internationale Tanzmesse (Dusseldorf, Germany). Ms. Gibney has been honored with the Northern Ohio Live Arts Award, the Copperfoot Award for Choreography from Wayne State University, the Case Western Reserve University Young Alumni Award, Alpert Award (Finalist), the OTTY (Our Town Thanks You) Arts Award, and by Sanctuary for Families, Safe Horizon, and The Retreat. In April 2008, her company was named to the Vanity Fair Hall of Fame for “making art and taking action.”

She has received recognition and support from prestigious organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, Bossak/Heilbron Charitable Foundation, the Harkness Foundation for Dance, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Emma Sheafer Charitable Foundation, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Mertz Gilmore Foundation. Ms. Gibney holds an MFA in Dance from Case Western University.

The Allen Theater performance is presented in partnership with Cleveland State University Theatre and Dance Department. Tickets are available for $25/$20/$10 (students) through the Allen Theatre box office by calling 216-241-6000 or 866-546-1353, or visiting www.groundworksdance.org/allentheatre.

About GroundWorks DanceTheater

Now in its 16th season, GroundWorks DanceTheater is dedicated to the development and presentation of new choreography and collaborations.  The five-member company performs new works by David Shimotakahara and Artistic Associate Amy Miller, as well as commissioned work by nationally and internationally acclaimed choreographers including Kate Weare, Ronen Koresh, Dianne McIntyre, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, Jill Sigman, Gina Gibney, David Parker and others.

GroundWorks DanceTheater’s performances are made possible with funding from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Ohio Arts Council, Cuyahoga County residents through Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, The Cleveland Foundation, The George Gund Foundation, The Murphy Foundation, The Kulas Foundation, The Char and Chuck Fowler Family Foundation, The Toby Devan Lewis Philanthropic Fund, Cleveland City Dance, Individual Contributors, and Members of the GroundWorks Board of Trustees.

For more information, please visit www.groundworksdance.org.

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