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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 Summer Dance Festival in Cleveland the result of a Perfect Storm of Needs


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Pilobolus opens ADF in Cleveland on Saturday, July 29 in “Shadowland.” Photo by Ian Douglas.

By Steve Sucato

DANCECleveland and the American Dance Festival (ADF) have teamed up this summer for ADF in Cleveland, an 8-day dance festival July 29-August 5 at Playhouse Square. The inaugural event will include performances by international superstars Pilobolus (July 29), hip hop troupe Rapheal Xavier (August 2) and New York modern dance company Brian Brooks (August 5). In addition there will be a four-day educational workshop series taught by ADF faculty and free community events. For a full schedule of events see below or visit adfincle.org.

Given that DANCECleveland is one of the oldest modern/contemporary dance presenters in the country and ADF, which began in 1934, has been heralded as “One of the nation’s most important institutions” by the New York Times and as “The world’s greatest dance festival” by the New York Post, the question is why has such a collaboration between the two like-minded organizations never happened before?

In talking with DANCECleveland executive director Pamela Young, it took a perfect storm of circumstances to make ADF in Cleveland happen.

“Nothing happens quickly for me,” says Young “I like to think and ruminate on things.”

Young has been in conversations with the Durham, North Carolina-based organization and ADF executive director Jodee Nimerichter for several years working out the structure and logistics of the Cleveland mini-festival.

For Nimerichter, ADF in Cleveland represented a chance to expand their brand awareness in the Midwest. Says Young, while ADF reaches nationally and internationally, it doesn’t pull much from the Midwest, especially when it comes to students attending ADF’s summer school offerings.

Locally, Young was also looking for a way to expand DANCECleveland’s performance options. “There are so many things interesting happening in dance that aren’t spectacle,” she says. “Works that don’t necessarily show well in larger theaters such as solo works or interesting cross-sections of dance and theater…it’s very hard for me to incorporate those into our season.”

In addition, Playhouse Square, feeling the district and their facilities were underutilized during the summer, was interested in adding programming and Cleveland State University’s department of theatre and dance was also looking for ways to enhance their annual summer dance workshop and having ADF’s teaching faculty here during it was, says Young, “a slam dunk for them.”

The addition of ADF in Cleveland to Northeast Ohio’s burgeoning summer dance offerings that include dance events at Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park, Akron’s Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival and the new Lose Your Marbles Dance-centric fringe festival, along with Tremont’s Arts and Cultural Festival and others, is yet another reason why the region is fast becoming one of the top destinations for summer dance in the tristate area and beyond.

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Pilobolus in “Shadowland.” Photo by Ian Douglas.

THE SKINNY

While in future editions of ADF in Cleveland Young says she wants to feature perhaps lesser known artists and productions that can be seen in unconventional settings (site-specific works, etc.), for this inaugural festival she wanted to introduce the festival with more familiar dance companies.

Marquee troupe and Northeast, Ohio favorite Pilobolus will kick things off performing their highly successful work Shadowland on Saturday, July 29 at Playhouse Square’s State Theatre. Here is a description of the show that I wrote that appeared in Pittsburgh City Paper this past February:

While entertaining audiences across Europe since it premiered in 2009, Shadowland didn’t make its North American premiere until 2015. Nathaniel Buchsbaum, a member of the “Shadowland” cast since 2012 feels the success of the show abroad and not wanting to compete with Pilobolus’ regular U.S. repertory company may have accounted for the delay in American audiences getting to see the work.

Created in collaboration with Steven Banks, the lead writer of TV’s SpongeBob SquarePants and set to original music by David Poe, the 75-minute dance-theater piece combining projected shadow play, multimedia, circus arts, dance and more, tells the surreal story of a young girl’s dream of a sensational world as she comes of age.  In it, the performers contort their bodies into shadow configurations of airplanes, elephants, flowers and more.

Buchsbaum says he will perform several roles in the Pittsburgh premiere of the work from a chef to several shadow creatures. He describes his indoctrination into the show as trial by fire.  “We [he and another new dancer] got the barebones structure of the show in Connecticut [Pilobolus’ home base] and then flew to Europe. Within three weeks of performances adding us in scene by scene, we were fully integrated into the show,” says Buchsbaum.

In a 2015 review of “Shadowland,” New York Times writer Siobhan Burke wrote: “A teenage girl lost in a dark dream, she’s at the mercy of a mysterious giant who, with the rustle of one imposing hand, turns her into a dog from the waist up. Both before and after this transformation, she is chased, threatened, prodded, eaten, humiliated, even tied up and whipped.”

While the show’s target audience skews more mature than that of SpongeBob SquarePants – Says Buchsbaum: “It’s definitely a family-friendly show. We get a lot of kids and adults who really enjoy it.”

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Raphael Xavier’s hip hop troupe performs Wednesday, August 2 at Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre. Photo by Bicking Photography

Next, Wilmington, Delaware-native Raphael Xavier brings his award-winning hip-hop dance artistry to Playhouse Square’s Allen Theatre on Wednesday, August 2. As described by DANCECleveland’s website: Xavier has been a hip-hop dancer and breaking practitioner since 1983. He describes himself as an “Innovative Movement Conceptualist,” creating new ways to expand the vocabulary of the dance form and how it fits onto an aging body. Drawing from hip hop culture and his background in photography, music and as a sound engineer, Xavier creates a visual and musical landscape the ties into his choreography. Dance Magazine described Xavier’s dancing and works as “…Artful and mesmerizing, Xavier transforms a bravado dance style into an introspective meditation.”  

Area dancegoers may remember Brian Brooks’ choreography and dancing in a duet with New York City Ballet star Wendy Whelan as part of her production Restless Creature at the Ohio Theatre in 2015. Brooks returns to Cleveland with his dance troupe to close out ADF in Cleveland on Saturday, August 5 at the Ohio Theatre.

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Brian Brooks dance troupe closes out ADF in Cleveland on Saturday, August 5 in “Torrent” at the Ohio Theatre. Photo by Erin Baiano.

As described by DANCECleveland’s website, Brook’s troupe will perform Torrent, set to Max Richter’s version of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” The lush piece full of movement sends the dancers soaring across the stage while playing with lines and texture as they perform. Brooks has received numerous awards and was recently appointed as the inaugural Choreographer in Residence at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance. This innovative three-year fellowship supports several commissions for Brooks each season with the first year featuring Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and Miami City Ballet, as well as his own New York-based group.

ADF in Cleveland runs July 29-August 5 at Playhouse Square. See schedule below for event times and dates. Individual performance tickets run $25-$50. Festival passes run $64-$119. Several events free. See adfincle.orgdancecleveland.org or call 216-241-6000 for information and to purchase tickets/passes.

2017 ADF IN CLEVELAND SCHEDULE

Saturday, July 29 (National Day of Dance)

11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Pilobolus Master Class – (FREE) CSU Dance Studio – Reservation Required.
1:30 p.m. – 2:30 p. m. Mega Barre Outdoor Community Ballet/Exercise Barre Class (FREE)  – E. 14th Street
3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. Local Dance School Showcase (FREE) – Ohio Theatre
5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. Dancing In The Street
Rehearsal to learn the So You Think You Can Dance Routine (FREE) Open to all ages and abilities.  – E. 14th Street
6:45 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Dancing In The Street
Community Performance of the So You Think You Can Dance Routine (FREE) – E. 14th Street
7:30 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. Pilobolus – Performance Shadowland – State Theatre*
*This is a ticketed event. Please contact the Playhouse Square ticket office.
9:00p.m. – 11:00 p.m. Silent Disco Party (FREE) – U.S. Bank Plaza

Tuesday, August 1

11:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. Yoga (FREE) – U.S. Bank Plaza
6:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. “Dancing Under the Stars”
Salsa Dancing (FREE) – U.S. Bank Plaza

Wednesday, August 2

9:30a.m. – 5:30p.m.  ADF Dance Workshop @ CSU Dance Studios
6:15 p.m. Raphael Xavier Pre-Performance Chat – Allen Theatre
7:30 p.m. Raphael Xavier Performance – Allen Theatre*
*This is a ticketed event. Please contact the Playhouse Square ticket office. ​

Thursday, August 3

9:30a.m. – 5:30p.m.  ADF Dance Workshop @ CSU Dance Studios
7:30 p.m. Dance Cinema Night – “Singing in the Rain” Connor Palace Theatre*
*This is a ticketed event. Please contact the Playhouse Square ticket office.

Friday, August 4

9:30a.m. – 5:30p.m.  ADF Dance Workshop @ CSU Dance Studios
7:30 p.m. Dance Cinema Night – “Top Hat” Connor Palace Theatre*
*This is a ticketed event. Please contact the Playhouse Square ticket office.

Saturday, August 5

9:30a.m. – 5:30p.m.  ADF Dance Workshop @ CSU Dance Studios
6:15 p.m. Brian Brooks Pre-Performance Chat – Ohio Theatre
7:30 p.m. Brian Brooks Performance – Ohio Theatre*
*This is a ticketed event. Please contact the Playhouse Square ticket office.
8:45 p.m. Brian Brooks Post-Performance Q & A – Ohio Theatre

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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Cleveland’s Inlet Dance Theatre opens CPT’s ‘DanceWorks’ series with mostly Entertaining Program


Inlet Dance Theatre's Joshua Brown, Taran Brown, and Dominic Moore-Dunson. Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

Inlet Dance Theatre’s Joshua Brown, Taran Brown, and Dominic Moore-Dunson. Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

Inlet Dance Theatre
Cleveland Public Theatre – Gordon Square Theatre
Cleveland, OH
April 10-12, 2014

By Steve Sucato

Cleveland-based Inlet Dance Theatre opened Cleveland Public Theatre’s annual DanceWorks series April 10 at Gordon Square Theatre with a program of five diverse works by company founder and artistic director Bill Wade including three premieres. In its 13th season, Inlet has carved out a niche among Northeast, Ohio dance troupes for its highly accessible dance works utilizing Wade’s movement language that mixes the classical modern dance technique of Erick Hawkins with the unique body sculpting style of Pilobolus.

The sold-out performance began with excerpts from Wade’s 2014 work Nature Displays.  The nature-themed work created in conjunction with an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History was funny, creative and utilized prop and costume theatrics a la like-minded dance troupe MOMIX’s dance work Botanica. The work featured everything from frolicking birds and bees to the migration of sex cells.  Set to a compilation of music including songs by Peter Gabriel and Vancouver’s Infinitus, Nature Displays began with a section entitled “Birds in a Field” in which five dancers lay on their backs, legs skyward while five others crouched atop them perched like birds on a branch, heads bobbing.  The perched dancers then switched positions outstretching their arms and legs to look like birds in flight. Wade’s simple, but clever choreography had an ease to it that was engaging.

Then dancer Josh Brown buzzed the stage as a manic bee in a laugh-out-loud solo after which the work turned its attention to the microscopic with a depiction of the attraction of sex cells. Inlet’s dancers rolled on and off the stage like tumbleweeds and then came together in group formations in vignettes that looked to be about meiosis and sexual reproduction.

The first of several delightful works on the program, Nature Displays was followed by Wade’s equally entertaining spiritual solo “Soon I Will Be Done” (1993) performed by dancer Dominic Moore-Dunson. Danced to gospel music by Frankie Knuckles, the modern dance solo about overcoming struggles was passionately performed by Moore-Dunson’s garnering him a standing ovation.

“Angels Unaware,” the first of three premieres in performed in succession was far less engaging. Themed around the often unknowing support we get from others in our lives, “Angels Unaware” depicted several characters in various states of emotional distress being comforted and encouraged by others. The well-intentioned work established early on that those who were being helped could then become those who helped others. Where the piece faltered was in the repetition of that one-note. Dancers hugged, cradled, lifted and uplifted those in distress in predictable choreography that, although nicely danced, became tiresome to watch.

Inlet Dance Theatre's Joshua Brown and Elizabeth Pollert. Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

Inlet Dance Theatre’s Joshua Brown and Elizabeth Pollert. Photo by Lauren Stonestreet.

The best of the new works presented, “10” was a tribute to veteran dancers Brown and Elizabeth Pollert’s 10-years with Inlet.  The intensely physical duet set to a commissioned score by Sean Ellis Hussey played out like a greatest hits of the weight-sharing, daring lifts and Pilobolus-like movement found in many of Wade’s works.  The choreography had each of the dancers lifting, carrying, and balancing on one another in marvelously acrobatic choreography that highlighted both dancer’s strength and giving as partners.

The mostly entertaining program closed with “Fire,” the third movement of a yet-to-be-completed five movement work inspired by Laurie Beth Jones’ self-help book, The Four Elements of Success that likens the four elements to personality types.  Danced to another original score, this time from composer Jeremy Allen, a member of Cleveland-based experimental orchestra FiveOne, “Fire” featured a trio of dancers (1 male, 2 female) in familiar choreography that had dancer Dominic Moore acting as a fulcrum balancing dancers Nicole O’Malley and Michelle Sipes like weights on other side of him. Perhaps the “danciest” of the works on the program, Inlets dancers moved through pirouettes, body rolls and turns in attitude. In the end though, “Fire” was a disappointment.  Wade’s choreography for it lacked originality and the fire implied by its title. Its trio of dancers also seemed to struggle performing it.

Despite the program’s few sour notes, overall it proved entertaining and in keeping with what has made Inlet Dance Theatre a popular ticket in Cleveland on this and any other dance season.

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