Two GroundWorks DanceTheater Veterans Take a Final Bow

Sat 4/7 @ 7:30PM

Felise Bagley and Damien Highfield, two dancers who go way back with GroundWorks DanceTheater, will be moving on after their upcoming farewell concerts. We sat down with them recently and listened in as they looked back and shared their plans for the future.

CoolCleveland: How did GroundWorks start? And how did you two get started with GroundWorks?

Felise Bagley: Back when Shimo (David Shimotakahara, executive artistic director of GroundWorks) was still dancing for Ohio Ballet, he co-founded a regional choreographic collaborative called New Steps with Maggie Carlson and Ginger Thatcher. That was the seed that became GroundWorks. At first all the GroundWorks dancers were from Ohio Ballet, except Mark Otloski who was from Cleveland Ballet.

Damien Highfield: In 1999 when I was still dancing with Ohio Ballet, Shimo asked me if I was interested in a side project. I said, “When are you going to rehearse?” and Shimo said “After Ohio Ballet rehearsal.” That was 9:30pm to 11:30pm at the old ballet studio where Ohio Ballet used to rehearse.

CC: Brutal working hours! So that was your first piece for GroundWorks, the premiere of Circadian. And your partner was…

DH: Amy Miller. She was still working for Ohio Ballet too. Shimo would meet us and it just depended how much energy we had on week nights. And we’d work on weekends and sometimes I’d drive up to Cleveland and rehearse in the old Cleveland City Dance studios. Circadian is in both the farewell concerts so it’s like bookends, the first piece I danced with GroundWorks and the last.

FB: In 2001 when I joined GroundWorks full time it was Shimo, me, Amy and Mark, and that was pretty much it until Damien joined full time in 2007 although…

DH: Mark got injured a couple of times and Shimo got injured a couple of times. Brian Murphy and I both filtered in and out. After the summer of 2006 when Ohio Ballet folded there was a lot of pick-up work available so you saw me dancing with a lot of different groups. Shimo offered me full time with GroundWorks but I said I needed to figure out what I was going to do. Then in 2007 I took him up on it.

FB: There was a lot of overlap between Ohio Ballet and GroundWorks for the first few years. And I was also working for other companies as a guest artist doing Nutcracker and other ballets. I loved that pointe shoe and tiara repertoire but we also had very serious contemporary choreographers working with GroundWorks and that’s what fed me.

(Felise and Damien start naming choreographers who worked with GroundWorks. Beth Corning. Gina Gibney. Keely Garfield. David Parker. Lynne Taylor Corbett!)

CC: Even more amazing, most of them set original work on you!

DH: I remember too, when I first joined GroundWorks, it was about performing in unconventional venues around town.

CC: The Landmark Series! Shimo bought a portable stage with grant money so you could perform anywhere and still have decent sight lines.

FB: That was another thing that made GroundWorks special.

(Felise and Damien start naming places they performed in the Landmark Series: Pilgrim Church. Trinity Cathedral. Saint Peter’s. First Baptist. Akron Ice House.)

FB: In the old Cleveland Trust Building we performed under that beautiful dome. People were watching us from the balcony. We’ve danced in a lot of really cool places.

CC: Let’s not forget to mention Shimo’s choreography from the early days of GroundWorks. You did a revival in 2007 of Major to Minor, which holds up quite well. And a lot of people remember Open Seating. Were you in that?

FB: Many times. Open Seating was just barely materialized when I joined.

CC: And you’ve performed Circadian with Damien many times. Let’s tell our readers about the upcoming concerts, starting with the duet, Circadian.

FB: When GroundWorks was young, there was a lot of coordination between the music and the dance. Gustavo Aguilar (GroundWorks’ music director) would watch rehearsals and make videos and then, using body timings and breath initiations, he’d derive sounds and rhythms. And that’s where the score for Circadian came from.

DH: And we didn’t talk. Not in the rehearsals and not at lunch break. People let me know, we don’t do that here.

FB: Nobody would talk. We’d just work (she gestures). We’d communicate with our bodies. It was very intense in a nice, quiet way.

CC: Which suggests why Circadian is even less subject to verbal analysis than most abstract duets. For all the times we’ve watched intently, we’ve never found much to say about it. Circadian does, however, contain interesting partnering, and that’s something you two have done a lot, even though GroundWorks practices a round robin casting policy in which — pretty much — everyone gets to do every part and everyone dances with everyone. So let’s talk about your approach to partnering.

DH: It goes back to our ballet training, which teaches us how to use our bodies and how to partner.

FB: The ballet training is indispensable.

DH: It teaches you physics. If the ballerina is running toward you, how do you translate her momentum into a lift overhead? How do you use your legs in a lift? And if your partner starts to get away from you, how do you get her back?

FB: Damien’s greatest strength is not in his legs or his shoulders, but in his ability to communicate as a human being, to listen, to rearrange his thinking.

CC: Ballet training. Translation of momentum. The use of the legs in a lift. Regaining control when a lift starts to go wrong. I can think of a number of places in Circadian where those factors come into play. Thanks, guys. That gives me things to watch for. (See video of Felice and Damien performing Circadian  here.)

CC: Let’s characterize the other two dances in the upcoming concerts. There’s a premiere by Shimo and another piece that James Gregg created on the whole GroundWorks company, all five of you.

DH: Shimo’s still creating the movement for his piece.

CC: Do you think he’s telling a story?

DH: No, but it has a flow and you can see that there are relationships.

CC: The music, John Adams’ John’s Book of Alleged Dances (1994), might provide some context in that several of the titles of the 10 pieces are humorous and one, Judah to Ocean, refers to a rail line in San Francisco, where Adams taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music from 1972 until 1984.

FB: The James Gregg piece is a dark Sleeping Beauty based on the original poem in which children are served up as food. James has created an abstract modern version of that story with minimal pantomime. He says he wants it to be “beautiful in its ugliness.” That’s his thing.

DH: It’s very stylized.

FB: He’s wonderful. He has a definite vision. And he’s very excited about us. He was very happy with the way we’re doing this piece.

DH: Yes, he actually said that this might be his best work. Sometimes you can sense that a choreographer is using you as filler, but James took the best that each dancer had to offer.

(CC: We understand from our reading that Gregg was inspired by Giambattista Basile’s Sun, Moon, and Talia from his Pentamerone (1634). Basile’s story is considerable bloodier than later, better known versions, Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty (1697) and the Brothers Grimm’s Little Briar Rose (1812).)

CC: Let’s tell our readers about your personal lives now. You’re both married but not to each other…

DH: I have 3 kids with my wife, Jennifer Highfield, and I’m currently refinancing my house.

FB: I’ve been married for 16 and a half years to Brian Skrant.

CC: Ok. Let’s talk about what you will do next. Damien, we understand that you are working with Stage Center.

DH: Yes. Stage Center is right on Main Street, a few minutes from my home. I’ll be the face of the company. My partner will do most of the paperwork but I’ll do the day-to-day running of the business.

CC: So we’re talking shoes, costumes…

DH: I’ll be working with dance companies and dance schools, helping them with their costuming needs. So many small studios I’m only learning about now, and other studios that I knew about but had no contact with before, like Beck Center.

CC: What will you be doing, Felise?

FB: I am a certified Gyrotonic instructor. I will be working for Inspiral Motion. I’ve already started to teach there but after I’ve left GroundWorks I’ll be there full time. And I’ve left space in my schedule for surprises like maybe teaching, maybe doing little dance projects. All this time I’ve been focused on one thing and I don’t even know what else is out there for me. I feel like I’m full of unbound potential.

DH: Looking back over my career, I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I could have danced in Europe a little bit more — that would have been great — but I’m very happy for all I’ve been able to do.

Bagley and Highfield will do their final performances with GroundWorks DanceTheatre Sat 3/3 at E. J. Thomas Hall and Sun 4/7 at the Breen Center in Ohio City. Tickets are $25-$30.


[Written by Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas]




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