Ask David Shimotakahara something about dance or other artistic subjects and you notice he hardly takes a breath between soft-spoken thoughts.

It’s no wonder the artistic director of GroundWorks DanceTheater is in a loquacious mood these days. Shimotakahara and his Cleveland modern-dance company are revving up for a 15th season packed with activities and developments.

The season begins with GroundWorks’ inaugural performances this week at the Allen Theatre in PlayhouseSquare – – part of a new residency at Cleveland State University – – and extends to the world premiere of Shimotakahara’s version of “The Rite of Spring” in April with the Akron Symphony Orchestra to mark the ground-breaking ballet’s centenary.

“It’s just one of those years,” said Shimotakahara in a recent interview. “When things start to align, you have to jump and take those opportunities and get started.”

Becoming resident dance company at CSU was in the works for a decade. GroundWorks has spent time on campus with cutting-edge guest choreographers, who’ve given master classes for the students. The company’s artistic associate, Amy Miller, has created pieces for the dance program.

The residency is reality partly as a result of the university’s transformation of the Middough Building, on E. 13th St., into the CSU Arts Campus. The renovated studios and classrooms provide spaces for the Cleveland Play House and the university’s dance, theater and visual-arts programs. The renovated Allen Theatre is nearby.

“Now that we’re in these beautiful new spaces and performing in this beautiful facility, it seemed the perfect time for GroundWorks to be here in a consistent manner,” Lynn Deering, director of the university’s dance program.

In addition to working intensively with CSU students three weeks a year, GroundWorks will give annual performances at the Allen Theatre, either on the main stage or in other spaces. Although Shimotakhara said he and his company long have wanted to establish a presence in PlayhouseSquare, the residency makes it possible to do much more.

“The modern-dance scene in Cleveland needs these kinds of opportunities to center itself,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for dancers of all backgrounds, regardless of whom they’ve worked with. It will help them get information.”

Shimotakahara isn’t rushing into the residency with all sorts of newfangled ideas.

“The CSU partnership is going to be a process,” he says. “We’re not suddenly going to try to create all these programs or educational activities the company can’t develop over the long-term.

“I’m grateful Lynn is agreeable to proceeding that way. It has to work for both organizations.”

Bringing organizations together also is a goal of the “Rite of Spring” project. The Akron Symphony approached Shimotakahara about collaborating on a new production of the historic 1913 ballet, with its primal score by Stravinsky.

In addition to the orchestra and GroundWorks, the choreographer said the project will involve students from Akron schools. They’ll take part in ensemble sections with GroundWorks’ five dancers – – including new member Annika Shea, formerly with Pilobolus Dance Theatre – – and other professionals who’ll be hired for the production.

“It’s stretching our capacity to reach out to the Akron community in a way we’ve never really done before,” said Shimotakaraha, who was an Akron resident when he danced with Ohio Ballet.

The company also is reaching out as part of the Cleveland Foundation’s “Engaging the Future” program, which encourages arts organizations to cultivate new audiences by creating relationships.

To begin to do so, GroundWorks experimented last week with an event at the Dunham Tavern called “Common Ground,” which included a discussion – – unrelated to dance – – that drew about 30 people from diverse backgrounds.

“It’s something I believe in,” said Shimotakahara. “As artists and as individuals, we have a lot of interests. The company is about new work, and as such we should be interested in new ideas.”

New or recent ideas in the dance realm will be onstage this week at the Allen Theatre, where GroundWorks will perform works by Shimotakahara and Miller and give the world premiere of Doug Elkins’ “My Humming Bird on the Highline.” New York choreographer Elkins has set his piece to an assortment of music, including songs immortalized by members of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.).

Elkins is no stranger to Cleveland. A champion of Hip Hop and martial arts, he has brought his company to town twice to perform “Fr ulein Maria,” his riotous spoof of “The Sound of Music.” Shimotakahara said similar mirth pervaded Elkins’ recent rehearsals with GroundWorks.

“I love his work,” he said. “He takes conventions and turns them on their head. And he certainly looks at dance conventions in his work. As a dancer, you take them for granted but don’t realize how odd they are. Just the physicality of his work is a lot of fun.”

By Donald Rosenberg
The Plain Dealer
October 21, 2012

Photos by Gus Chan
The Plain Dealer