BWW Interviews: David Shimotakahara Brings GroundWorks DanceTheater to NYC

Written with Ellen Dobbyn-Blackmore

David Shimotakahara, Artistic Director of GroundWorks DanceTheater

Photo by Amy Arbus

GroundWorks DanceTheater, led by David Shimotakahara, is a Cleveland-based contemporary dance company that is brimming with creative energy. The company breaks new ground every year with two new works commissioned from outside choreographers in addition to new works created by Shimotakahara and Amy Miller. The company carries the authoritative air of a group of dedicated, like-minded artists performing work that they feel passionately about. The energy GroundWorks generates crackles off the stage in performance.

At the Dance Mix showcase, Shimotakahara's company presented selections from My Hummingbird at the High Line, a new work by choreographer Doug Elkins. The piece, a contemplation of the complexities of love, featured a cast of great individual dancers all of whom work well as an ensemble. They are distinctive and diverse in their individual styles ranging from the liquid legato of Annika Sheaff to the sinuous muscularity of Felise Bagley and the sly humor of Noelle Cotler. Damien Highfield and Gary Lenington did great work in their give and take partnering. They pushed and pulled each other, giving the piece a balance between friendliness and subtle antagonism. Overall these dancers exude the quality of fully realized, thinking artists.

At the heart of this company is Shimotakahara's desire to engage with the audience and have a meaningful relationship with them. GroundWorks has just begun a partnership with Cleveland State University to share some resources including access to artistic partners and theatrical space in the Allen Theater in Cleveland's Playhouse Square. Shimotakahara sees community relationships as an essential element in keeping dance relevant. He took the time before the performance to talk about his company's direction.

GroundWorks DanceTheater in performance

Q: How do you like the APAP experience?

This is the first time we've been to APAP. We were fortunate enough to be part of Ronen Koresh's showcase because we have a great relationship with him. He created a piece on GroundWorks and he loved the company. It's a great opportunity.

Q: How are you getting your bookings right now?

We go to regional conferences where we get to showcase our work. Most of our bookings come through word of mouth and relationships with people that we know. We don't have an agent.

Q: Where is the future dance audience going to come from?

We're participating in the Cleveland Foundation's new initiative called "Engaging the Future" which has eleven Cleveland-based organizations thinking about audience engagement. We received a grant to develop a new project called "It's Your Move" to reach out and extend our geographic presence.

Q: What's the thought process behind it?

We're thinking about what audience engagement really means and how to go about creating new relationships in the community, relationships that move beyond putting people in the seats. If people don't know dance, what is it about us that they can relate to? How do we interact with them and get them interested in coming to shows? We're looking outside the performances and the traditional educational outreach activities to expand our platform.

Q: What form will "It's Your Move" take?

"It's Your Move" is an interactive video project we will be launching in the next couple of months. It is part of a number of initiatives we are experimenting with to foster new relationships and connect in different ways to new constituents and potential audiences.

Q: How does this fit in with what Groundworks DanceTheater is all about?

There are different ways of engaging people's imagination, their curiosity, their interest. If we're an organization that's about new work, which is at the heart of our mission, then we need to be thought of in a way that connects to new ideas. The core of what we do is always about dance and working with creative people but we want to know what else we can do. I think that is what will sustain the organization in the long term. We need to have an expanded notion of what a cultural organization can be.

Q: What is GroundWorks' strength and what do you think your audiences are responding to?

A truly interesting and diverse range of new works created on this group by some of the most creative voices in dance today and produced here (Cleveland). In addition to the work, the audiences respond to the quality of the artists, the production values, often the intimacy of the venues and sense of a personal relationship to the organization that is cultivated and fostered over time. Humor, resilience.

Q: What is happening with today's dance audience?

It used to be that the traditional direction of the relationship with the audience was one way. The company decided what it was doing and the audience responded. And we thought that it would always be viable. I think that's no longer the case. People want another direction to that relationship. They want to have some say in how and where and when they experience what you have to offer. I think our strength at GroundWorks is that we have always looked at everything pragmatically and have trusted that the rest would follow.

Q: How has your evolution been from performing dancer to artistic director?

When I think about how I thought of dance as a performer versus now, it's just been fantastic. I don't regret anything. What I've learned is beyond what I could ever have imagined.


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Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn Andrew is a lifelong traveler and cook. Born into a military family, he became used to moving frequently and having to learn new things. He enjoys the rich variety of life. After a first career as a dancer with the Hartford Ballet and Ohio Ballet companies, Andrew did his undergraduate degree at the University of Akron and then went to Kent State for graduate school. All along the way he has been a cook in restaurants from New Orleans to New York City. Andrew also collaborates with his writing partner, Vikas Khanna, on cookbooks in addition to the Holy Kitchens film series. Andrew is the writer of Flavors First, recently published by Lake Isle Press.