Artistic Director David Shimotakahara’s new work for GroundWorks 2017 Fall Dance Series explores themes connected to the most primal of human concerns – love, joy, fear, loss, shame, separation, redemption.
Using the American Gothic movement as a jumping off point for Salt to Sea, his 40th work for the company, Shimotakahara weaves together stories of characters on the fringe; isolated, a little desperate, searching and longing.
Tell us more about your new work. What were your influences?
I was curious about the American Gothic movement, which has its beginning in literature in the late 18th and early 19th century. From what I read, it was a reaction to the transcendentalist movement, which supported the idea that man has a boundless capacity for greatness. The art that came out of the American Gothic movement looked at the darker side of humanity. That side that can be menacing and tragic and looked at human nature through a more realistic lens.
Gothic literature was generally mysterious and ominous, filled with death and terror, and used omens and foreshadowing. Fascinating topics to integrate into a work of dance.
Yeah, all of these inconsistencies about human nature – our capacity to do good but also the realities of this darker side – that to me was an interesting place to start. This piece has been gestating for a while. I look at the American Gothic movement in context of today and comparing it to this culture of American exceptionalism. Sometimes we get carried away with our own invincibility. This other perspective – this acknowledgement of a darker side – is a reminder that life and people are unpredictable, there is much we have no control over, yet to the extent we all share in an understanding of our vulnerability, it can ultimately bring us closer. That in spite of all the things happening today, in a world rocked by calamity and displacement and disaster, and our need to make sense of it all, we’re in this together.
The other connection I was making was this idea of losing one’s way. In some ways, everybody at one time in their life, is lost. We are looking for a place; we are looking for a sense of belonging. This community that we are creating on stage, this group of dancers on stage are like refugees of the soul. They are on this journey, looking for hope.
Tell us about the music you chose for this piece.
I was looking for music that reflects these ideas. They are pieces from different periods, but they all have this Americana feel. One piece is “I Am a Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow” recording sung by a Baptist congregation. Some are very theatrical. There’s also section we’re calling the hoedown with music by the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir.
Your work is tentatively titled, “Salt to Sea.” What are you referencing? Salt of the earth, comes to mind.
I think of salt of tears, salt of the earth. Salt is something very elemental and simple. I have this image in my mind of all things getting washed away. It references universal themes – life is hard, there is darkness, yet we are all looking for hope.
This is your 40th original work for GroundWorks. That’s quite a legacy for the company you founded nearly two decades ago.
I’m really surprised (laughs). I guess it’s like telling somebody that they’re turning 40, and they’re like, “Wow! How did that happen?” Except that when I think back, we’ve been really busy doing this thing that I hoped we could do, which is to explore and create new work. I was standing in the studio recently with (founding member) Amy (Miller), there we were almost 20 years later, talking about new work, and under very different circumstances. For me, it was one of those, “Let’s sit back here for a moment and smell the roses,” kind of moment. Not a lot of people are lucky enough to be able to work this way and realize their dream. We are very fortunate to be in that position still and to be productive and feel energized by the process.
Let’s shift the conversation and talk a little bit about the reprisal of Brubeck. The last time the company performed the piece was in 2014. What will be different about it this time?
I grew up listening to Brubeck because I love jazz. Dave Brubeck was one of those classic musicians/composers whose music was played a lot growing up. He was one of the more successful musicians to cross over from jazz to mainstream pop culture. I was really impressed and intrigued by his signature album Time Out and how he explored different time signatures, and I just love the possibility of that for dance and movement. Brubeck came from my admiration and joy from his music. I wanted to challenge the dancers with his music, too. It’s very technical and very precise, yet it has a lot of freedom, too. But it takes virtuosity and I wanted something of that to come through in the dance. I wanted the work to come up to the level of what Brubeck did with his quartet. Ultimately, I think we did something that honors his music.
A little side story: We sent Brubeck a copy of the performance and he looked at the piece and wrote a nice note. He told us how much it meant to him and his wife and how the dance really captured the spirit of his music.
GroundWorks has hired three new dancers in the past three months. Tell us how the creative dynamic has changed.
I’m loving this new group. The new dancers (Tyler, Gemma and Taylor) are just so intelligent and interested in working together. They bring a lot of enthusiasm and interest and curiosity. It’s a good mix, a good vibe in the studio, creatively. Working on the pieces for the Fall Series has been a fun process. In a very short time we are bonding and gelling as a very different group, though it is very much GroundWorks.