GroundWorks Executive Artistic Director David Shimotakahara, General Manager Beth Rutkowski, and Trustee Tamera Brown, discuss GroundWorks vision at 16 and moving forward – “being a caretaker and curator of, and catalyst for curiosity.”
Founded in 1998, GroundWorks is a ballet-based contemporary dance company whose activities include fully-produced performances of new work in traditional theater venues, events in non-traditional settings, master classes and workshops throughout Northeast Ohio. By embracing risk and imagination, GroundWorks seeks to encourage interdisciplinary collaborations and expand the parameters of how and where dance is presented. Approximately 6,000 people attend GroundWorks events each year.
About the Project
Hoping to expand the ways in which audiences connect to the organization outside the performance experience, GroundWorks has embarked on two new experiments. The first—Common Ground—is a social convening of approximately 30 people who gathered to discuss broad questions or issues related to Cleveland and the arts. The second—It’s Your Move—is a video collection of spontaneous moves created by GroundWorks artists and volunteers that are posted on GroundWorks website and the It’s Your Move YouTube channel. Using these video motifs as inspiration, GroundWorks invites viewers to respond by sharing videos of their own moves, which will be posted on the organization’s website.
As an organization, GroundWorks was in a “pretty good place,” according to staff. As Artistic Director David Shimotakahara says, “We’ve always been focused on innovating around the artistic product, and we’re really good at what we do.” The organization also had an expansive artistic approach that, according to Board member Tami Brown, unlocked the potential for creative thinking within the organization. “GroundWorks is all about the joy of creativity that just happens to be expressed through movement,” she says.
To Shimotakahara and General Manager Beth Rutkowski, however, this joy was not shared widely enough, and they were both feeling a sense of urgency within the organization. “The company had gotten to this point of success,” says Shimotakahara, “and I didn’t want it to just plateau. We were kind of isolating ourselves in a strange way, and it made sense that if we were going to grow as an organization, then we were going to have to look at how we intersected with the community.” Comparing GroundWorks to a beautifully outfitted oil rig that is “incredibly technically put together and obviously built for the job,” Shimotakahara says, “It’s a great platform, but it’s a very small platform… it could create a much larger platform for new creativity.”
Rutkowski sensed that what they needed was a way to connect with people beyond what was happening on stage—a two-way exchange that would build emotional connections and involve the audience in more participatory ways. But how could an organization that had always followed a traditional performance model of working from one performance to the next rethink its relationship with its audience in order to stay in touch with people in a more meaningful way?
Taking a cue from his own intuition and philosophy of dance, Shimotakahara suggested that GroundWorks begin to see itself as “a curator, catalyst and caretaker of the audience’s curiosity… purposely leaving out the ‘D’ for dance,
Just as GroundWorks was beginning to explore what this all might mean, the Engaging the Future/Incubating Innovation Program was announced by the Cleveland Foundation, and staff saw the new program as an opportunity to buy itself some time to think and dream. Full of optimism and confidence, GroundWorks applied for and received a grant from the Foundation in 2012.
About Incubating Innovation
Incubating Innovation is an 11-month program of The Cleveland Foundation’s Engaging the Future initiative. In Incubating Innovation, an EmcArts facilitator works with a carefully selected innovation team comprised of key staff, artists, board leaders and stakeholders to incubate and test innovative strategies that address adaptive challenges in their organizations. The program includes group facilitation, an offsite three-day Intensive Retreat, and a variety of extended support systems specifically tailored to the organization’s needs.
The GroundWorks Innovation Team was ambitious, identifying three possible prototypes to test its new working hypothesis: GroundWorks can use its creativity to engage or transform audiences in ways other than performance and can create shared experiences for the Company and community to grow together. Soon, however, the Team realized that their ambition outstripped institutional capacity with just a staff of 3, and they narrowed their experiment to two prototypes—both of which would focus on defining new ways for the organization to interact with the public.
As GroundWorks staff worked to develop parameters for Common Ground, they were careful to draw a line between traditional interactions around the organization’s artistic product and the new kind of conversation they wanted to have with the community. When gathering people over dinner, Rutkowski says, “We didn’t show performance video, we didn’t really talk about performance, and we didn’t perform. We did have a lot of artists there, but they were on an even playing field with everyone else.” Would participants enjoy such an exchange? Would they be stimulated by it? Would they get a different impression of GroundWorks by being there? Rutkowski was eager to find out.
GroundWorks held two Common Ground events. The first discussion focused on Cleveland itself and explored ways to bridge the gap between the two distinct personalities that characterize the East and West sides of the city. The second event tackled the question of how the arts could be a leader in setting a tone of public civility. The invitation process, Rutkowski says, was critical. GroundWorks invited about half the participants and asked them each to bring a friend, with the result that nearly half the participants were completely new to the organization. “The idea of inviting was a great method for putting people in a room,” says Rutkowski. “And the folks who were invited took that very seriously. This idea of concentric circles was a key learning element for us.” Shimotakahara agrees. “It was a very stimulating experience,” he says. “People were excited to be there, and there was a wonderful energy.” Although the event was carefully structured and planned by staff, they say it “felt natural because the energy came from the people in the room.”
The challenge now is for GroundWorks to deepen the impact by connecting its successful experiment more closely to what the organization does artistically. Common Ground is “another kind of space,” says Shimotakahara. “To me, it will be more vital and build and enrich the Company—and our relationship with the people who attended—if we can relate the content to something that we’re involved in artistically.” Brown echoes Shimotakahara’s aspiration. “The original concept was to help people understand what the creative process looks like in our particular world—that this creative process leads to a dance piece. But you can use that creative process in a bunch of different ways, and showing that in the Common Ground sessions will be really interesting.”
In It’s Your Move—just about ready for launch—GroundWorks is venturing into virtual space, opening up a new channel of communication and giving people the freedom to respond in their own way and on their own time. Each week, GroundWorks plans to send out a “move of the week” video prompt on its social media platforms and ask people to respond with moves of their own. The concept grew from Shimotakahara’s conviction that most people want to move—they just need permission to do so. “There is naturally this desire to move your body,” he says,” and It’s Your Move is just a way to give people permission to be silly and have fun with movement. It’s not just this sort of high art thing that only dancers do. Of course, we all move our bodies.” Brown adds that she wants “to make people aware of their normal everyday movements. It doesn’t have to be a choreographed movement—but the policeman directing traffic, or someone flipping a pizza. From there, it’s not a big leap to dance.”
In addition to building personal connections, It’s Your Move is being designed to direct people to the new GroundWorks website. The project has tested GroundWorks technologically, but it is a good stretch, staff say, as it gave them a chance to enrich interaction and expand capability. Moving forward, the organization will track impact through a variety of parameters, including visits to the website, number of submissions, and other feedback.
Changes in Assumptions
Did it all this come easily for GroundWorks? Not at all, says Rutkowski, who adds that Incubating Innovation required them to navigate some uncomfortable territory. “I had lots of unanswered questions when we first started out,” she says, “and having a clean slate was very frightening sometimes. I want an agenda in place, and I want to know point by point where we’re going and what the end result will be. But you can’t worry about that, you just have to go in and trust the process. I grew as a person. Not to over romanticize it, but if you go in with an idea of where you’re going to end up, nothing will happen.”
Describing their natural inclination to jump to familiar conclusions, Brown advises others attempting a similar process to “come with an open mind and chuck out any preconceived notions.” Brown says, for example, that it immediately seemed logical to everyone on the GroundWorks Team to simply present dance in different places. “We jumped right to that,” she says, “but within a few meetings, we realized that this was not what this work was about. And once we chucked those ideas out the window and started at ground one with an open mind, the process was so much more effective.”
Indeed, before they could even begin to identify and tackle their adaptive challenge, Rutkowski says, they had to take a hard look at how they saw themselves as an organization. In the beginning, she admits she considered GroundWorks primarily a performing organization focused on preparing a new dance work, producing it, and inviting people to buy a ticket to see it. “For me, I had to really explode that,” she says. “So I began to see us more as a whole organization—not just one putting a show on a stage, but also one involved in other parts of the community that didn’t involve performance or dance. To me, this made us a more whole, a more well-rounded organization.”
Shifting this underlying assumption also helped Rutkowski think differently about the dancers. “Our dancers have spent their entire lives training as dancers, and that’s what they do, but that’s not only who they are,” she says. “They’re whole people, and it’s important that as we see ourselves as a more well-rounded organization, we also see our individual dancers as whole people.”
Obstacles and Enablers
Shimotakahara relishes the Retreat experience, and is quick to cite its benefits, saying, “Coming out of the Retreat, I felt like for the first time I was on the same page with so many board members because we were intentional about taking time to step outside and look at the bigger picture.” He also credits Incubating Innovation with forcing the Team to think in new ways. Brown agrees, saying, “The process was incredible—just being part of something that was so forward thinking. I’ve been involved with arts organizations for my entire career, and I’ve never had the kind of conversations we’ve had. It was really breathtaking—not only to think from our perspective, but then selfishly to take information back to other organizations.”
Allowing outsiders onto the Innovation Team was a huge enabler, says Rutkowski, as they brought a totally fresh perspective and an array of unexpected ideas. “Having them ask questions moved us to a different place,” she says. “We hadn’t done this before, but it was really key to getting us outside of ourselves.” The positive impact continued throughout the prototyping phase, as GroundWorks brought in others to help define what the prototypes might look like—a necessary step for an organization that was working outside its normal boundaries. “It wasn’t hard, and it was a great learning experience for us,” says Rutkowski. “We got this great little team of bright, wonderful creative people who didn’t have a regular relationship with GroundWorks. They might have attended a performance, but they weren’t our core regulars, and they have brought so much life and energy to our ideas and taken us in directions we wouldn’t have gone if we’d just relied on our own resources.” Brown contends that reaching out to other people and inviting them in actually strengthened the organization’s core values.
“It was a little bit scary, but it strengthened our resolve,” she says. Building those external resources was certainly very positive, Rutkowski says, but the process presented obstacles, too, because “all of a sudden there were new players in the game and new people you need to communicate with. You can’t just let it fly in the wind.” Shimotakahara cautions others about the necessity of attending to internal organizational culture and about taking the time to preserve and develop relationships “artist to artist, artist to staff, staff to board, and no matter that you are pressed for time and feel like your back is against the wall.” The time commitments involved in taking on new projects on top of existing responsibilities was a huge challenge, but as Rutkowski says, “Sometimes when you work your way through a challenge, you’re strengthened by it, and you see that you have more abilities than you thought.”
New Pathways to Public Value
Discovering these hidden abilities may take a leap of faith, but Shimotakahara insists it’s worth living with uncertainty for a time. “Like any collaborative process,” he says, “you just go on faith. And it takes humility, because you’ve got to get to this place where you allow yourself to stop doubting, to make this leap of faith. It sounds obvious because I think about it all the time in the studio collaborating with other artists. We’ve just never applied the process to the rest of the organization. I realized something about the thing that I do as an artist—that it can work for the organization in a completely different way—and this is quite wonderful.”
Thinking of it this way, the Innovation Team almost wonders why it seemed so ground-breaking to use GroundWorks’s institutional creativity to address its adaptive challenge. Now, there is something very simple and beautiful about the idea. “Rather than figure out something we don’t know, or something that is totally foreign to us,” Shimotakahara says, “we use this as our jumping off point. You boil it down to what you know and what it is you do in a very natural way, and then you take that and you use it in other ways. Then it’s natural, not something that’s forced or contrived.”
Do they still have questions? Absolutely. A big one, says Shimotatakara is still what inclusion means artistically as staff work to bring integrated prototypes into the life of the organization and bring them closer to the artistic center. “It’s not an easy marriage,” Shimotakahara says,” because the artistic product is sacred, and inherently there’s always going to be some tension in terms of how you do something, when you do it, and what the appropriate exchange is.” Yet he happily reports that he’s begun to think of the relationship in a new way, adding, “It’s not an either-or proposition. Being in this process makes you unpack a lot of the stuff you assumed, and you realize there are all these other possibilities. And these other ways create room for a kind of sharing that doesn’t threaten the integrity of what you’re doing artistically.”
GroundWorks staff are excited about seeing where their prototypes take the organization, and the next step is making them part of the institutional identity. “We have to continue to connect them to the creativity we know how to do in the studio,” says Shimotakahara, “and that’s going to give people a richer knowledge about what we do. The challenge will be living up to our promises. Maintenance is the big thing. You can do it once, but can you do it twice? Can you do it over the years or however long it takes? We’re still finding that out.”
By: Karina Mangu-Ward