Tag Archives: Rosie Hererra

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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Disillusion, Low Burning Human Drama and The Blues Inspire GroundWorks DanceTheater’s Latest Triumph

GroundWorks DanceTheater in Eric Michael Handleman's “Remora.

GroundWorks DanceTheater in Eric Michael Handman’s “Remora.”

GroundWorks DanceTheater
Cain Park – Alma Theater
Cleveland, OH
July 17-19, 2015

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

For its 13th annual summer season production at Cleveland Heights’ Cain Park, GroundWorks DanceTheater presented three works including a world premiere and introduced audiences to its two newest company dancers, Pittsburgh-native and former Parsons Dance member Lauren Garson, and recent Juilliard graduate Michael Marquez.

The humid matinee program on July 19 in the sweat box known as Cain Park’s Alma Theater opened up with a reprise of Miami-based choreographer Rosie Hererra’s “House Broken” (2014). The dark comedy about suburban life and its disillusions struck a purposeful balance between humor and heartache. The contemporary work, which I reviewed in February of 2014 (click here to read) held the same charms as in its premiere drawing the audience in with its collection of everyday life vignettes taken to quirky, absurd and often poignant extremes.

Damien Highfield and Felise Bagley in Rosie Hererra's

Damien Highfield and Felise Bagley in Rosie Hererra’s “House Broken.”

Annika Sheaff impersonating a lawn sprinkler in Rosie Hererra's

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

Set to familiar tunes by Tom Jones, The Turtles and Pete Seeger, “House Broken” began with sound effects of failed attempts to start a pull-start lawnmower. Then the roar of the engine coming to life launched the work’s five dancers into a series of emotional ups and downs portraying a host of archetypal characters.  A bored Marquez pitched golf balls (actually ping pong balls) into the audience, suburban “super dad” Damien Highfield aboard a working treadmill encapsulated in minutes his daily march through life in humorous fashion pushing a baby carriage in three piece suit while talking on a cell phone and then stripping off his business attire and showering and shaving. The work’s three female dancers Garson, Annika Sheaff and 2015 Cleveland Arts Prize recipient, Felise Bagley were seen and heard barking like dogs, corralling golf balls with their crotches and whipping their heads and long hair in violent circles.  Adeptly performed, the neatly packaged and memorable dance work was a sobering reminder of “life’s not so rich pageant.”

The program’s second work, “Remora,” whose definition can mean a type of fish having on its head a sucking disk by which it can attach itself to other aquatic life, ships, and other moving objects, began its creation in the studio at Cleveland State University literally from the roll of dice. That was one of the devices choreographer Eric Michael Handman, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Modern Dance, used to direct GroundWorks’ dancers into movement creation. The dice role, using one standard die and two others with body parts and German action words on them, initiated movement exercises GroundWorks’ five dancers and Handman used to help create material for the work.  Unlike the traditional choreographic model where the choreographer makes up steps and teaches them to the dancers to perform, Handman is one of a growing number of choreographers who lean heavily on the dancers to create movement. He directed the creative process and then assembled, organized and edited the dancer generated material into a finished work.  The results were impressive.

GroundWorks DanceTheater in Eric Michael Handleman's “Remora.

GroundWorks DanceTheater in Eric Michael Handman’s “Remora.”

Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in Eric Michael Handleman's “Remora.

Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield in Eric Michael Handman’s “Remora.”

The world premiere of the abstract “Remora” set to a moody, cinematic original score by fellow University of Utah faculty member Michael Wall, meandered through a series of undefined personal relationships between the dancers that Handman described in an earlier interview I had with him “as a low burning human drama.”

Delivered in a succession of solos, duets, trios and group sections, the work utilized a familiar contemporary movement language seen in many of GroundWorks’ pieces but with a fresh perspective. Like the aforementioned fish, the dancers latched onto each other at times and were carried along in movement phrases that were technically vibrant and visually appealing. Of note were a sharp, angular solo by Bagley that breathed elegance and a solo by Sheaff in which she moved briskly in a semi-crouched position a la a martial arts kata.  It was the work’s final duet danced by Bagley and Highfield however that really stood apart (and quite frankly could have stood on its own).

Danced to music emotive of longing, the pair pushed, pulled and collected each other in wanting embraces. A touch of an arm or a nudge of a leg sent the two swirling in and out of deep body leans and meaningful grasps that altogether spoke directly to the heart.

Felise Bagley, Annika Sheaff and Lauren Garson in David Shimotakahara's

Felise Bagley, Annika Sheaff and Lauren Garson in a rehearsal of David Shimotakahara’s “Boom Boom.”

Lauren Garson and Michael Marquez in David Shimotakahara's

Lauren Garson and Michael Marquez in David Shimotakahara’s “Boom Boom.”

The program’s final work “Boom Boom” (2009), by GroundWorks’ artistic director David Shimotakahara set a different tone; one of a bluesy romp befitting a summertime dance program.

Danced to foot-stomping tunes like Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” along with songs of heartache like Aretha Franklin’s “Today I Sing the Blues” and Odetta’s “Another Man Done Gone,” the solidly-crafted work mixed playful strutting, shimmying and shaking with melancholy sinking and swaying.

With the Cain Park program GroundWorks’s dancers as a unit once again showcased a skillset and performance quality unrivaled in the region. Both Garson and Marquez acquitted themselves nicely in their debuts. Garson, a more natural fit, impressed with her expressiveness and mature stage presence.

GroundWorks Dance Theater will repeat this program in two free performances July 31 and August 1 at Akron Ohio’s Glendale Cemetery as part of The Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival

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New work by Rosie Hererra highlights GroundWorks DanceTheater’s richly satisfying Winter Series program

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s  “House Broken”.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s “House Broken”.

GroundWorks DanceTheater
Breen Center for the Performing Arts
Cleveland, Ohio
February 28, 2014

Reviewed by Steve Sucato

Winter may have had Northeast Ohio in its icy grip, but Miami-based choreographer Rosie Hererra’s world premiere work “House Broken” did its best to warm things up at Cleveland’s Breen Center for the Performing Arts with a laugh-out-loud dark comedy filled with sight gags and prop humor and tinged with the heartache of broken dreams and unfulfilled lives. It was one of three works on GroundWorks DanceTheater’s highly entertaining Winter Series program. The diverse program began however with choreographer Amy Miller’s joyful 2008 work for the company, “For the Life of Me”.  Set to music by Ingrid Michaelson, Amy Borkowsky, Giorgio Conte with a recorded story reading by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, the work for five dancers had a youthful, playful vibe a la the opening of an episode of TV’s Friends. Miller’s contemporary choreography in the opening section had the dancers leaning into, lifting, and ducking under one another.

In the work’s second section Miller juxtaposed the dancer’s carefree movements ─ contacting each other via leg taps and knee bumps ─ with Tyler recounting a story of feeling invisible as a child in a sweets shop, helpless to act on his desire for a piece of coffee cake.  A third section found the dancers frolicking along an imaginary tightrope further illustrating an underlying theme in the work of growing up and walking a line between acting like an adult and letting your inner child rule.  The inventive work concluded with an amusing vignette in which the dances engaged in a children’s schoolyard game while answering machine messages played of an overprotective mother and those whom she had contacted in search of her adult daughter.

“Luna” by David Shimotakahara.  Photo by Mark Horning.

“Luna” by David Shimotakahara. Photo by Mark Horning.

Next, GroundWorks artistic director David Shimotakahara’s “Luna” (2013) set a more impersonal tone. Danced to Oberlin Conservatory of Music’s Peter Swendsen’s new music soundtrack laden with machine-like whirs and hisses along with distant background voices, the dark and stylized work felt cold and the dancers in it, detached. Despite its impersonal approach, Shimotakahara’s choreography for “Luna” was a finely crafted exercise in circular patterns that had its dancers circling arms and moving in and around a moon-like circle projected on the stage. The dancers methodically rose and fell with changes in Swendsen’s music, dancing with ordered precision and intense purpose.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s  “House Broken”.

GroundWorks DanceTheater dancers in Rosie Hererra’s “House Broken”.

The aforementioned “House Broken” closed GroundWorks’ richly satisfying program on a lighter note. In it, dancer Damien Highfield aboard a working treadmill portrayed a modern man hectically juggling work and suburban home life.  Fed a string of props by the other dancers in the piece including baby dolls, a stroller and a cell phone, Highfield humorously tried to keep pace with all of life’s demands on him. With “House Broken”, set to a mix of popular tunes by Tom Jones, The Turtles, Pete Seeger and Roberta Flack, Hererra created an introspective  microcosm of suburban life where outward appearances of fun loving women and men and dutiful fathers and mothers concealed lonely, unhappy and unfulfilled lives.  Hererra’s quirky cast of lawn mowing husbands and hair whipping housewives made a lasting impression as did the performances of Groundworks’ dancers as them especially dancer Annika Sheaff who shone in episodes of uncontrolled crying, dog barking and as a figurative blade of grass in a green bodysuit mowed down like the dreams of so many of the characters in the work.

GroundWorks DanceTheater will perform its Winter Series program, 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 29, 2014. Akron-Summit County Public Library Main Branch Auditorium, 60 S. High Street, Akron, Ohio. $10-25. 216-751-0088 or www.groundworksdance.org

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