David Shimotakahara was with the Ohio Ballet when news came out that Heinz Poll, the co-founder of that company, was going to retire. Rumor was that Shimotakahara was being considered for the job. Unfortunately, the Ohio Ballet board selected another company member. Following that decision, things did not go well for OB, either artistically or financially.
After his retirement, Poll distanced himself from the company, which had struggled.
In 2002, according to the Akron Beacon-Journal, he told his successor to remove him from the company's printed materials. "It's not the kind of company I would have wanted to have," he told the paper at the time. "It clashes totally with my personal aesthetics."
Ohio Ballet disbanded in 2006.
Many local dance aficionados agree that, based on what happened with OB and GroundWorks, which Shimotakahara founded in 1998, the fate of Ohio Ballet would have been quite different if he had been appointed as the company’s artistic director.
Shimotakahara, in developing his new company was determined to “challenge the preconceptions about dance.” This desire to push boundaries is evident in Groundwork’s bold initiative: “To seek collaboration and input from guest choreographers of the highest caliber and to constantly evolve the repertoire of the company.”
“Over the past 15 years, GroundWorks has created and produced over 60 original works. Twenty-one of these have been commissioned from nationally and internationally renowned guest artists. In addition, Shimotakahara has contributed over 30 pieces to the company’s rep. His work is about here and now. He is interested in framing issues surrounding individuality, privacy, place, and connectivity through movement that speaks through its musicality and physicality.”
This philosophy parallels well with Poll’s beliefs which was once characterized as "clarity, precision, lean look, and distinctive style." Parallel also to Poll is that GroundWorks gained national acclaim as “a small troupe of well-trained classical dancers capable of performing in a wide range of styles, who welcomed good dancers whose bodies were considered wrong for ballet, which is also true of GroundWorks.”
An examination of some of the company’s former dancers illustrates the variances of styles and body types. Amy Miller was a muscular and powerful dancer. Felise Bagley, probably the most proficient and elegant local contemporary/modern dancer in the area, was a lovely waif. Annika Sheaff, a former member of Pilobolus Dance Theater defied the image of the classical ballet dancer. Tall and lanky Kyle Ring was more Broadway star Tommy Tune than Baryshnikov.
GroundWorks emerged from the Covid-induced lay-off with a new “fab” five. As evidenced by their Cain Park July 23 and 24th concert, they were not as synced as the usual Shimotakahara-meticulously honed dancers.
The program opened with Axis. Created by New York Choreographer Adam Barruch with original recorded electronic music and sound by Roarke Menzies. The piece was created as a dance-film. It was first seen online by GroundWorks in June 2021. It “explores the alchemical processes that drive the natural world and the inner workings of our bodies.”
Highlighted by strong solos performances by Annie Morgan and Chance Williams, the dancers interwove through movements performied as AC current, alternating the powerful with the static. Though sometimes lacking in unity, the overall effect was positive.
Sud Butser’s Dream is David Shimotkahara’s homage to sounds of early American jazz.
Danced to the sounds of such jazz icons as Fats Waller, Mound City Blowers, Scott Joplin, Tin Parham and Mamie Smith that piece suffered by being on the large Evans stage instead of an intimate venue. The dancers were fully engaged but the transitions between segments and the lack of any humor when the music cried for it, led to tepid applause at the conclusion.
Inside, choreographed by Clevelander Antonio Brown, was conceived as a film project in the fall of 2020. The work “examines five individuals who are confined from the outside and battle with their thoughts of past and future.”
The dancers responded well to the multi-sounds and the inner conflicts each experienced.
Capsule judgment: GroundWorks Dance Theater is in the midst of a reconceptualization with five new dancers who must learn not only Artistic Director David Shimotakahara’s request for precision, but in working as a team. The past company transitions indicate that it can be done. It should be interesting to watch.
Next up for GroundWorks is the Heinz Dance Festival on August 5 @ 6 at Firestone Park in Akron and Fall Performance Series on November 5 & 6 at Night Stage, Akron Civic Theatre. For information go to groundworksdance.org