GroundWorks builds movement from the ground up

GroundWorks Dance Theatre is a contemporary dance company founded in 1998 by Artistic Director David Shimotakahara. The company primarily splits its performance time between Akron and Cleveland with a bit of regional touring.

The company’s roots are in the rigid world of classical ballet. When Shimotakahara formed GroundWorks, he and his fellow co-founders wanted to do something that would challenge the expectation of dance, not only in how it’s done but also where.

“David likes to create dance with live musicians,” says GroundWorks General Manager Beth Rutkowski. “We also try to look for more nontraditional spaces” – like, for example, a cemetery.

“We try to achieve a more intimate scale,” Rutkowski says. “We have a preference for venues that are smaller so the audience is closer. If we have an opportunity to be at [University of Akron’s] E.J. Thomas Hall, we will have an audience of 200-250 people on stage with the dancers, then add live musicians. We strive for that feeling of intimacy, so there is that sense of a once-in-a-lifetime feel. We want our audiences to feel that they’re right there with us.”

GroundWorks produces six concert series of two performances each at six different locations each year.

“Our main mission is the creation and presentation of new work,” Rutkowski says. “Anything you see our company perform is brand-new or original repertory.”

Works are created in collaboration with their dancers, which is also not standard in the dance world. Shimotakahara might start with a thought or motif, a piece of music, or a specific prompt, then the company works together to create a full performance piece.

GroundWorks also works with a number of community collaborators, including the Technology in Music department at Oberlin University, where a professor has created a number of original electronic sound pieces that lend themselves to more abstract choreography.

There are typically three to four original pieces in one performance, and each performance will see a wide variety of types of dance. “Our dancers have danced in all forms and are comfortable with blended styles and moving between styles,” Rutkowski says. “It’s hard to pinpoint a particular genre. The dancers are extremely versatile.”

This versatility also appeals to a wider audience of people who may or may not be familiar with classic or contemporary dance. “If you come see a GroundWorks show you might not like everything, but you’ll love something!”

Another thing that makes GroundWorks unique as a dance company is their work with guest artists. Two to three times per season they bring in guest artists for a creative residency, during which time the guest artist has 12-15 working days to create a new work in collaboration with and for the company. These guest artists come from all over the country and beyond. “We’re bringing these world-renowned choreographers and artists right here to Northeast Ohio,” Rutkowski says.

One example is from 2011, when Tony-nominated choreographer and Broadway veteran Lynne Taylor-Corbett worked with GroundWorks on a piece called Hindsight, featuring music from The Pretenders and paying homage to lead singer Chrissie Hynde and her Akron roots.

The GroundWorks team also helps build outreach activities with visiting artists while they’re in town. They might partner with the University of Akron or Cleveland State University to offer master classes with the guest artists or larger community dance classes, or possibly present a preview or in-progress showing of the new work they created that is open to the general public. “We definitely try to give our community the opportunity to get to know these artists from out of town, what they have to say and what their vision is.”

As part of their standard programming, with each performance series GroundWorks produces there is an outreach program that they take to schools in the area for free. An outreach coordinator, along with some of the company dancers, works with students on movement exercises and basic movement skills so they understand movement and how it works. They then work together to create a movement piece. Students might be in a physical education class or even an English class; their outreach is not specific to one subject. “Movement connects to everyone on some level,” Rutkowski states.

Students create a movement piece in small groups at their school with on-site dancers, then GroundWorks brings all the schools (usually three or four) together to their “stage” for that particular performance and students perform their pieces with all of the lighting and staging set up for the company performance to be held that night.

The concept for the students’ movement piece is always drawn from the concept that the dancers will perform later in the evening, so students get to see the full scale production after they’ve done their own piece and see how the themes connect. “It really brings it around full circle and they’re engaged in a way [they wouldn’t typically be],” says Rutkowski. “They’ve created something that is related to what they’re seeing on the stage and they’ve been up there themselves.”

Engagement is another large piece of what GroundWorks does. One year ago the company launched “It’s YOUR Move,” a community engagement program for which they received funding from the Knight Foundation. It’s YOUR Move is an interactive video project that partners with organizations and events happening in and around downtown Akron. GroundWorks started by filming their dancers doing their moves and asked people to respond with their own movement that felt natural and comfortable to them.

“We take our iPad and our idea and go out to an event, set up a video booth, talk about the project, then ask people to show us a move,” Rutkowski explains. “It kind of gives people permission to move and get creative.”

From those experiences they create mash-up videos that are then posted to their YouTube channel and website and shared through social media.

It’s YOUR Move will continue to be a focus for the company in the next year. “We’ll continue to look at ways to take this project and get people to move and to connect their movement to what we do on stage. We’re always trying to get people to not only come and check out their moves but also to share them. We’re sharing and want other people to too.”