Tag Archives: Kate Weare

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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Hope, Meaning and Virginia Woolf


GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers rehearsing David Shimotakahara's

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers rehearsing David Shimotakahara’s “Shadowbox.”

By Steve Sucato

Collaboration has always been a part of GroundWorks DanceTheater’s company identity. In the past several seasons however, the company has ratcheted up their work with area arts organizations on several production including joining with the Akron Symphony Orchestra in 2013 to perform artistic director David Shimotakahara’s Rite of Spring, with ChamberFest Cleveland in 2014 for Shimotakahara’s Ghost Opera, and last season with the Aeolus Quartet and composer Steven Snowden in Shimotakahara’s Civil War-themed House of Sparrows.

Entering its 17th season, Shimotakahara and GroundWorks keep up that trend with the world-premiere of Shimotakahara’s Shadowbox in conjunction with Violins of Hope Cleveland’s community-wide collaboration inspired by Amnon Weinstein’s Violins of Hope.

Photo by Debra Yasinow.

Photo by Debra Yasinow.

Violins of Hope is a project begun by Weinstein in 1996 in which he has been locating and restoring violins that were played by Jews in the camps and ghettos during WWII so they can be brought to life again on the concert stage. Although most of the musicians who originally played the instruments perished during the Holocaust, their voices and spirits live on through the violins.

Part of the GroundWorks’ 4th annual Fall Concert Series at PlayhouseSquare’s Allen Theatre, Oct 16 and 17, the work, in partnership with the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage, Jewish Federation of Cleveland and Cleveland Institute of Music, will feature an original score by award-winning Israeli composer Oded Zehavi who is in residence in Cleveland as a Schusterman Visiting Israeli Artist under the auspices of the Israel Institute. It will be played live in-part by violinist Mirabai Weismehl Rosenfeld.

Shimotakahara’s 20-minute Shadowbox draws on the spirit behind Violins of Hope in a less obvious way. Says Zehavi of Shimotakahara’s choreography: “There are issues of the moment when something human becomes very monstrous, when people turn on each other, all that is in the work without forcing any one interpretation.”

[Foreground] GroundWorks DanceTheater's Michael Marquez, Lauren Garson, and Annika Sheaff. [Background] Composer Oded Zehavi, Violinist Mirabai Weismehl Rosenfeld.

[Foreground] GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Michael Marquez, Lauren Garson, and Annika Sheaff. [Background]
Composer Oded Zehavi, Violinist Mirabai Weismehl Rosenfeld.

Shimotakahara says his way into this delicate subject matter centers around children’s games (tag, hop scotch, cat’s cradle and the like) that become dark metaphors for life in WWII concentration camps.  “Games have rules everyone is to follow, there are winners and losers but often there outcomes can be arbitrary.” says Shimotakahara.

For Zehavi’s part, he says he stayed away from a lot of compositional conventions that would have worked with something that had a storyline. “Games don’t necessarily have a narrative,” he commented.

The work also references images of confinement and memory which led to the idea of shadow boxes and the work’s title.

Choreographer Kate Weare (center) in rehearsal with GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers on

Choreographer Kate Weare (center) in rehearsal with GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers on “Far and Near.”

New York-based choreographer Kate Weare’s second commission for GroundWorks, Far and Near involves less heavy subject matter.

Set to excerpts of Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composition “Partita in 8 Voices” and music by Bang on a Can music collective founder Michael Gordon, the world-premiere of Weare’s 18-minute, abstract work for Groundworks’ five dancers, draws inspiration from Czeslaw Milosz’s existentialist poem Meaning.

“The dancers themselves were also a huge source of inspiration for me in making this work,” says Weare. “I spent a lot time just watching each of them move one at a time for about 45 minutes the first day, directing them, responding to them verbally, telling them what I saw and asking for subtle changes.”

Audiences may remember Weare’s 2013 piece Inamorata for the company. The second time working with GroundWorks’ dancers Shimotakahara says he noticed a certain ease from the Guggenheim Fellowship Award-winner. “She took some more risks with the dancers and ended up with great results,” says Shimotakahara.

As a curious choreographer himself, Shimotakahara says: “I am always so amazed and fascinated with how choreographers start work. It’s great to be able to see how somebody just dives in and where they get traction and when that happens.”

Archival image from the original cast of September 12, 2008 at The Ice House, Akron, featuring Felise Bagley, Kelly Brunk, Damien Highfield, Amy Miller and Sarah Perrett.

Archival image from the original cast of Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s “Unpublished Dialogues” from September 12, 2008 at The Ice House, Akron, featuring Felise Bagley, Kelly Brunk, Damien Highfield, Amy Miller and Sarah Perrett.

Rounding out the program, GroundWorks will reprise Tony-nominated choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett’s Unpublished Dialogues (2008).

Set to music by American composer Howard Hanson, the single-act dance-theater work imagines the last day of author Virginia Woolf.  Says Taylor-Corbett: “I was fascinated by the fact that she took her life at the end and questioned what that last day was like.”

GroundWorks DanceTheater performs its 2015 Fall Concert Series, 8 p.m., Friday, October 16 & Saturday, October 17 at PlayhouseSquare’s Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Reserved Seating $20-25, Children under 18 and students $10 (Use Promo Code 1STU), CSU Students with a Valid ID FREE, $3 off for Maltz Museum and Jewish Federation supporters (Use Promo Code VOH). For tickets: (216) 241-6000, (866) 546-1353, groundworksdance.org/allentheatre or playhousesquare.org.

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