Full Circle: An Interview with Amy Miller and David Shimotakahara
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Full Circle: An Interview with Amy Miller and Groundworks’ David Shimotakahara

GroundWorks Dance Theater

As it celebrates its twenty-year anniversary, Cleveland-based GroundWorks Dance Theater makes its way to Gibney to perform in its POP: Performance Opportunity Project series, March 22-23, 2019 at 7:30PM. The program features a premiere by Cleveland native and internationally renowned choreographer Dianne McIntyre and works by James Gregg and GroundWorks Artistic Director David Shimotakahara.

Gibney and GroundWorks intersect in more ways than one. CEO and Artistic Director Gina Gibney has choreographed several works on the Ohio ensemble, and Gibney remains a “shining example” to Artistic Director David Shimotakahara who is actively working towards a GroundWorks brick and mortar space.

This performance is also a special “full circle” moment for GDC Senior Director Amy Miller who got her professional start performing with Shimotakahara at the Ohio Ballet, and later as GroundWorks’ founding member. The two artists talk about their crisscrossing careers and what’s next for the evolving company. These are excerpts from their conversations with David and Amy.  

Pictured: Amy Miller and David Shimotakahara by Dale Dong.

David what prompted you to start GroundWorks? What did you learn from your Ohio Ballet experience?

David Shimotakahara: Coming out of Ohio Ballet, I was always interested in modern and contemporary dance. At the time in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Ohio Ballet was a rare hybrid of embracing traditional ballet on pointe and contemporary work. Artistic director Heinz Poll wasn’t super interested in story ballets or productions with huge sets and costumes — he had a background in modern dance and studied at the Folkwang School in Essen Germany. . . What I took from my experience at Ohio Ballet is the strong work ethic of Heinz and his partner Thomas Skelton the renowned lighting director. They had a huge influence on me. I saw firsthand how commissioned work and inviting dance artists worked there. . .

I wanted to see if I could create my own platform where I could introduce my own choreography. At that time there weren’t other organizations or companies in the area, other than Ohio Ballet, that were doing new work. I was — you know [laughs] — the young know-it-all artist who wanted to do his own thing.

 We made a quite leap going from Ohio Ballet, which was highly structured and had a large group of dancers. When we arrived in the studio at GroundWorks, at first, it was just the two of us. It was really about, how do we make it work? We didn’t have any preconceived notions.

Can you talk about the early days working alongside one another?

DS: I always felt, in a way, we physically shared a language. I didn’t feel like I had to translate a lot of the information to her. Amy is intuitive and empathetic. It was a real meeting of the minds from my perspective. It may have felt excruciating at times [laughs] – you’d have to ask her. But I have so many memories of being in the creative thick of it and discovering the work together. . . When you can connect with another person at a level beyond words, it’s a gift.

There were things we really didn’t know how to do at the beginning. I didn’t have experience doing education work, for example. We didn’t have a format. I remember looking at one another across the classroom, and sharing moments of sheer terror [laughs]. But by learning together, we found things that really did work through the process. That was hugely satisfying.

Amy Miller: I’m super honored to say that David Shimo is really my “Dance Dad.” We’ve known each other since 1991 when we were both dancing with the Ohio Ballet in Akron, Ohio. He was a longstanding member and rehearsal director with OB. He took me under his wing and we danced there together for ten years. 

When he founded GroundWorks in 1998 and I joined him as a founding member for another decade, David supported me through so much personal and professional development — offering me my first chances to choreograph on professional movers along with opportunities to develop myself as a teacher, educator, and advocate. All those 20 years of day-to-day engagement with his relentlessly passionate soul are forever the litmus test for me for new partnerships moving forward no matter where I’ve gone.

What’s it like to have Groundworks in your “home” after a 20+ year relationship of collaboration and camaraderie, Amy?

AM: I’ve been thinking a lot about ‘full circle’ moments. This opportunity to welcome GroundWorks to New York has reminded me of how years may pass and situations may look different from phase to phase, but how grounding it can be to rely on a shared guiding philosophy. We can continue to return to companions we are lovingly tethered together to in this life to reengage together so we all have more fuel to carry on. It reminds me that even in our darkest hour, we are never alone. We are all in this together — in the studio, on stage, in the community, throughout the arts field, and in our ever-changing society. Thank you Shimo, thank you GroundWorks, thank you DANCE.

GroundWorks DanceTheater

GroundWorks DanceTheater by Downie Photography.

How has GroundWorks evolved since its inception?

AM: GroundWorks literally began as back to back solo performances by Shimo and myself in an old icehouse (a stunning brick building with 55- foot ceilings that used to house chunks of ice from the local river to offer customers before the advent of refrigeration in the home). Partnering with composers, designers, and collaborators, GroundWorks has continued its mission of prioritizing new work. Their interdisciplinary outreach program has evolved with its breadth and depth in schools, hospitals, and beyond. And, it offers opportunities for the next leaders in the dance field to find their footing, cut their teeth, and dance, dance, dance!  

DS: From the beginning, we had the simple idea of exploring new work and seeing where it took us. It started with us, who we were as people, and what we do. That continues to be the spur of the Company’s evolution. I’m so grateful to have been able to keep that vital for twenty years. The more pervasive questions that I continue to ask as we grow are:

How can we connect with people outside of our performances?

How do we, as artists, use the skills that we have and the artistic process to inspire creative thinking in other people no matter which population we work with?

How do we create a frame that is a two-way dialogue into our process?

We’ll always prioritize artistic integrity and innovation. That’s a given. But it’s about finding creative ways to work that. I consider Gina Gibney the shining example. For me, she is a huge inspiration. . . Many of the ideas that Gina is already working with, we look to them as models. I’m very excited to see what the future brings. 

Interviewed by Gibney Dance Company Manager, Trina Mannino.