When you’ve been dancing for 25 years and 20 of those are with one company, you build a history together. You are family. “You become a part of the furniture,” Damien Highfield says, with affection, about his professional journey with GroundWorks DanceTheater.
Those two decades of creative collaboration will officially come to a close when Damien retires from performing with the company following its Spring Dance Series. He and his longtime on-stage partner, fellow GroundWorks veteran Felise Bagley – who will also be leaving the company – will perform their last pas de deux to Circadian, choreographed by GroundWorks Executive Artistic Director David Shimotakahara and first performed by the company nearly 20 years ago.
“It’s like bookends,” Damien says of starting and ending his GroundWorks career with Circadian, which he first performed in 1999. “What a beautiful and fitting coincidence.”
He recently sat down to reflect on his career with GroundWorks, the unique relationship he has with Northeast Ohio audiences, and what’s ahead following retirement.
You have been with GroundWorks almost since its inception. When you look back, on what has been almost 20 years with the company, what kinds of feelings are conjured?
Oh, all kinds of emotions. I just can’t believe it’s been as long as it has. I’ve been thinking a lot about it and 20 years – that’s a long time in one location, in one area, in one company. GroundWorks is like family. And like family, we share it all – the good and the bad. But at the end of the day, it was always about the work. When we came to the studio, everyone knew we had a job to do. Everyone brought their unique abilities and personalities. The company started becoming the dancers and the dancers became the company. I look back at the artists David has brought in over the years – the diversity, the range of the dancers and the artistry of the many choreographers. It’s just awe inspiring.
Do you have a favorite work that you’ve performed at GroundWorks?
House of Sparrows. Three years ago, when I was coming back from my knee surgery, I realized I was going to be limited in certain movements. I knew what was required of me, what I would be asking my body to do. And in many aspects, I didn’t allow myself to be limited. So I pushed myself harder. It’s just a natural instinct for a dancer to do that. I remember David encouraging me to ease into it, but I found myself getting deep into a grand plié and asking my knee, “Are you going to make it?”
The piece itself was brilliantly choreographed. Everything on stage had a purpose – from the lighting to the multimedia to the costumes. You get on stage and it all comes together. You get this through-line and this magic. And then you just go, “Wow.”
Tell us about your relationship with Northeast Ohio. What has been the most rewarding aspect about establishing a career in this region?
The best thing about Northeast Ohio is being a part of this arts community. It’s been such an amazing thing to meet other artists in Warren, Columbus, Oberlin, Cambridge, Cleveland, Akron… All of these incredibly talented and creative people meshing together and sustaining these relationships is what keeps me going. There’s so much history between the people who stay here. The people who stay, we have become the foundation and rock of this area. It’s like a family. And for the people who leave, they can always come back and be a part of it.
Tell us about your working relationship with David. What’s unique about your collaboration?
When I first met David at Ohio Ballet, he asked, “Do you want to work on some projects with me? I started this company and it’s called GroundWorks. I see you have some time available.” The reality was my schedule was kind of crazy. I worked at Bruegger’s Bagels from 4 in the morning until 12. Then I’d go to Ohio Ballet from 1 until 9:30 at night. Then David and I would work together until 11.
As long as there was work and availability, whenever I would have a chance to work with David, I would. That’s the kind of friendship and working relationship we have. There’s a trust that’s been built over the years.
Let’s talk about your working relationship with Felise Bagley. It’s safe to say that every season, audiences look forward to the Felise-Damien duet. Tell us the best thing about working with Felise.
My first experience with Felise – I was a bit intimidated. Actually, I was deathly afraid of her at first (laughs). When I joined GroundWorks, I was coming from Ohio Ballet and Atlanta Ballet. Felise’s work ethic put them all to shame. She was always the first one in the studio and the last one to leave. Her general knowledge of dance and movement is incredible. She is brilliant. I never thought that I could amount to that level of intensity and commitment. But the great thing about Felise is her way of bringing you along with her. She has the patience. She is a very giving artist. She wants you to succeed.
What will you miss about performing with her?
Oh, I will miss her incredibly. Every day that we see each other in the studio, we remind each other that this is a gift. Just being available for each other. We see each other and go, “How was that us? Did we really do all this? What are going to do without each other?”
Tell us about your relationship with the dancers in the company. What’s the best thing about creative collaboration at GroundWorks?
When a dancer joins GroundWorks, they become a part of a family. David asks us to bring our own individualism. He makes us learn from each other. We really get to know each other. That’s what’s been so unique and so strong about the company. You have to learn how that person moves. I go over the history of the dancers and artists that have come through the company from Ball State, Florida, Juilliard, they all congregate here. That’s the brilliance of GroundWorks.
When did you know you wanted to pass the torch?
My body told me. There comes a point when you’re dancing and yes, you’re loving it and living it. But the basic maintenance of keeping the body moving and going, it wears you down. It breaks you down. When you find that it takes more time to keep your body going than it does getting in the studio, you have to reassess. For me, the recovery and healing time was getting longer and longer.
I always said I never wanted to look bad on stage. I never wanted to be that guy where everyone’s like, “Oooh, maybe he needs to retire those dance shoes!” I don’t want to be that guy who retires in a wheelchair. Or that guy everybody at the hospital knows.
You have been dancing for more than 20 years. You’re 44. Well past the age most professional dancers retire. What kept you going?
Whenever something wasn’t feeling right I would take care of it right away. It’s about understanding your body, really listening to it, and knowing what it needs to function daily. Then you understand it weekly. Then you’re able to pace yourself. When I would get into November and December and knew I would be doing side projects, I knew I had to pace myself.
What are your rituals?
I’ve had certain injuries in my past, especially with my lower back, with the amount of lifting that I’ve done over the course of my career. I have to make sure my core and my back are solid and flexible. I do a lot of cobra pose in yoga, I use TheraBands, I do back stretches. I do a lot of core strengthening like sit ups, pushups and planks.
There’s always a lot of icing, heating pads, and when there’s swelling you have to take anti-inflammatories. Susan Masturzo has been my therapist for years. She has me do physical therapy and started getting me into acupuncture, cupping and dry needling. Susan got me through a summer when I tore my meniscus.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you find dance? Or did it find you?
When I was four years old, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It was called hyperactivity back then. I was constantly in motion. My parents put me in whatever they could find to keep me occupied. I did violin, theater, sports, soccer, choir. Then at age five, I found disco. As a kid, I idolized John Travolta. That year, my mom put me in ballet. The following year, I auditioned for The Nutcracker.
Being on stage at the Ohio Theater in Columbus in 1980, it was like a drug. I was so addicted to dance. I could not stop. It’s all I thought about. Though I excelled at these other things like soccer and choir, it was not my passion. All I wanted to do was dance. I always found a release in the studio. To be that active and get it out of my body. And then you find the family within the dance world and how accepting and supportive everybody is. I had found my home.
It’s interesting, I never had to take medication for my ADHD. With the amount of information you had to acquire dancing and how aware you have to be with your muscle structure, there was a calm that came to my body and brain, and that helped me to focus. Dance helped guide me in the right direction that I had to go.
What’s ahead? Tell us what you’ll be up to following retirement.
Now that I’m getting ready to retire, people are asking, “Can we get a master class, can you teach, can you choreograph for me?” But my main priority for the immediate future, for myself and my business partner, is the purchase of Stage Center, a dance apparel business that has been in existence in Akron for 35 years. It’s only seven minutes from my house. I’m truly looking forward to not commuting. I’m also excited about continuing the history of this beloved shop and relating to dance people – who will be my customers – on a completely different level.
Photos by Downie Photography