David Shimotakahara Reflects on Two Decades of Dance with Groundworks

David Shimotakahara works with Groundworks Dance Theater dancers
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20 years ago, Groundworks Dance Theater began as a troupe of two people. Today it's one of the premiere dance companies in Northeast Ohio, with founder David Shimotakahara continuing to lead the company.

In 1998, Shimotakara ended his career as principal dancer for Ohio Ballet to begin his own company with fellow Ohio Ballet dancer Amy Miller.

From Heinz Poll, the late founder of Ohio Ballet, Shimotakahara learned how to focus his work despite the challenges he might face as he built the company from scratch.

"The idea of economy and not thinking about lack of resources, but thinking about what that allows us to do given our resources as opposed to it being a compromise or a handicap in some way," Shimotakahara said.

David Shimotakahara works with dancer Tyler Ring

The company was able to keep its budget down early on while still performing critically-acclaimed choreography.

"I had an early board member, Jack Katzenmeyer, who every board meeting he'd say: 'We are a fiscally responsible organization!' He was very determined to impress that on the organization," he said.

David Shimotakahara working with dancers Alexis Britford and Robert Rubama

When Groundworks began, both the Ohio Ballet and Cleveland Ballet were going strong, which made it competitive for foundation dollars.

"We didn't have huge amounts of funding made available to us. We really had to prove ourselves. I'm proud of the way that developed over time, and I think we gained the confidence of the funders because of that approach," he said.

A major milestone came at the 10 year mark when Groundworks made its New York City debut.

"I was so nervous that I couldn't sit in the audience.  We were in this tiny little theater on the west side of New York.  They had an area upstairs for lighting, so I snuck up there.  I was sitting above the audience and the company performed beautifully.  At the end we had a standing ovation.  That moment I will treasure," he said.

Even though more than half of Groundworks' repertory is Shimotakahara's choreography, he never considered naming the company after himself.

"I thought of the dancers at [the start] much more as colleagues.  I still do, but there's of course a huge age difference now (laughs)," he said.

Groundworks Dance Theater continues its 20th anniversary season August 3 and 4 at the Glendale Cemetery in Akron for the annual Heinz Poll Summer Dance Festival.

Watch David Shimotakahara work with his dancers:

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