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David Shimotakahara fosters dance legacy with GroundWorks DanceTheater

Artistic beginnings

David Shimotakahara recalls dancing with his shadow as a young man.

“I remember that distinctly as, ‘I like this,’” Shimotakahara said. “It felt very natural.”

Decades later, Shimotakahara is an award-winning dancer and choreographer currently in the midst of the 25th season of his contemporary company, GroundWorks DanceTheater.

Choreographer leads dancers in steps inside dance studio
Dave DeOreo
Ideastream Public Media
David Shimotakahara leads GroundWorks dancers through a routine.

Shimotakahara’s parents supported his early artistic inclinations.

“My father was very attuned to the arts,” he said. “But it was my mother who really encouraged me to try to pursue something creative.”

His first ballet teacher recognized Shimotakahara’s determination.

“He sat me down and said, ‘You’re the crookedest thing that’s ever walked into a dance studio, as far as I’m concerned. But we’re going to work really, really hard,’” Shimotakahara said.

A need to dance

Shimotakahara said dance was a lifeline for him.

“I had no sense of myself, and it really helped me think of myself in this different way” he said. “I was determined that, because I wanted to do this, I would.”

His dance career began in his hometown of Montreal where he studied with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens. It was there where he met his future wife and fellow dancer, Pandora Robertson.

Black and white photo of male dancer leaning into a female dancer who leans back into his hand.
Ott Gangl
David Shimotakahara and Pandora Robertson

The two carved out a life together as freelance dancers, working in places like Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburgh.

“We were just so enamored with the idea of becoming professional dancers and being in the dance milieu,” he said.

Ohio Ballet days

The two married in 1981, and two years later they joined the Ohio Ballet in Akron, led by artistic director Heinz Poll, who was a major influence on Shimotakahara.

Black and white photo of four dancers posing in a line at a ballet bar
Akron Beacon Journal
Summit Memory
David Shimotakahara and Pandora Robertson joined the Ohio Ballet in 1983.

“Heinz ran it in a really sensible way. We didn’t have a lot of frills,” he said. "That kind of lean, economical approach to producing certainly influenced me in trying to figure out how to start a small startup company.”

In 1998, Shimotakahara retired from the Ohio Ballet and founded Groundworks DanceTheater.

Breaking new ground

“I was eager, itchy to try to do something on my own,” he said. “My body was feeling pretty ragged. I had some knee surgeries. I thought, ‘This feels like the right time.’”

A male and female dancer dressed in black intertwine
Dale Dong
GroundWorks DanceTheater
David Shimotakahara and GroundWorks dancer Felise Bagley

Shimotakahara was able to tap into a Northeast Ohio arts community that knew of his work with the Ohio Ballet. He said he’s indebted to them, including most of all GroundWorks Founding Board President Marjorie Talalay, the late director and co-founder of the Cleveland Center for Contemporary Art, now moCa.

“There’s an attitude, a willingness and ecosystem here in Northeast Ohio, which is extraordinary,” he said. “I’m grateful.”

Legacy of collaboration

Shimotakahara’s company has long championed new works by a wide range of national choreographers. Collaboration is at the heart of GroundWorks’ mission as a dance company.

Choreographer watches dancers run routine in dance stuio
Dave DeOreo
Ideastream Public Media
David Shimotakahara works with GroundWorks dancers on a routine.

“To be able to bring people together, to collaborate together and try new things, hopefully to create things that haven’t been experienced before,” he said. “It’s a gift.”

In March, GroundWorks DanceTheater celebrates its 25th anniversary season with a series of performances with the Theron Brown Trio in Akron and Cleveland.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.