Sunday, May 16, 1999

Dance community loses pioneer

Shawn Womack's 'Disappearing Acts' marks move

Enquirer Contributor

        “A very close friend of mine in high school — one of those fast and furious friendships from that coming of age period — I found out recently had committed suicide.

        “I really didn't know what to do with that information, because I had lost touch with her, and it sent me headlong into the past. Really she had disappeared from my life a long time ago, but she was always still there in my mind.”

        That's dancer/choreographer Shawn Womack telling a story that will show up in some form in the performance piece Disappearing Acts, which premieres Friday at the Aronoff's Jarson-Kaplan Theater.

        The event marks a disappearance of another sort. Ms. Womack is moving to California, and co-director Kelly Gottesman is returning to school.

        How do you take a suicide and make a dance? If anyone would know, it would be Ms. Womack. She has spent the past 19 years developing her contemporary dance voice by taking the most personally intimate details, finding the universal nugget inside and making dance works that people look at and say “I've been there.”

        Ms. Womack gave up going solo two years ago when she let go of her dance group, Shawn Womack Dance Projects. Cheryl Wallace, Mr. Gottesman and Ms. Womack co-direct the new Dance Projects. Disappearing Acts is their joint effort.

        The work, which explores loss, disappearance and reappearance, is a collage — a layering of movement, images and stories drawn from participants' lives. The material ranges from the flippant to heart-wrenching. With a cast of 50, “I would describe it as a big work, large in scale and in the collaborative process,” Ms. Womack says.

        As part of E-CASE, a teacher training and artists-in-residence program that introduces dance and theater into Greater Cincinnati Catholic schools, the group decided last fall to develop a work for the stage.

        “Out of our work with E-CASE there were people wanting to go deeper into the creative process,” Ms. Womack says. Those people were teachers and kids and their parents. But professional dancers? Not a one — that's what made the deal so sweet. ×hed Mix of experience

        Dance Projects hunts for opportunities to work with the untrained. The choreographers like the rawness of professionally trained performers working alongside newcomers who have the gift of introducing a fresh and authentic element. The work has been built directly from their program in 11 Catholic elementary and secondary schools on the eastern side of Cincinnati.

        Except for their solos, the three choreographers worked together. Ms. Womack says even for her, it's hard to know whose work is whose.

        “Kelly came into rehearsal one day and said "I feel like all my ideas are getting shot down'. I said "That's funny, I feel the same way',” Ms. Womack says. So used to going solo, it took some adjusting to realize they were getting somewhere together. “We were all letting go of our own ways,” she says.

        Local actor/director Mark Mocahbee joined the project to broaden the theatrical direction. Chris Dahlgren, a former Cincinnatian who lives in New York, has written the music and assembled a band of professional musicians drawn from the schools. Over-the-Rhine singer Terri Templeton, dancer Linda Reiff and theater artist Cheryl Couch also are involved.

        Ms. Couch has designed masks for a procession of characters who parade through the lobby and out onto the street in front of the Aronoff at intermission. Describing the scene as Fellini-esque, Ms. Womack says it sets the tone for the dance and also contrasts it.

        The movement-based piece has been developed scene by scene. Similar to some movie scores, Mr. Dahlgren's music is being added after the scenes have been set, with music supporting rather than leading the steps. He's worked closely with Glen Tuomaala, director of the Purcell Marian marching band. Ten band members will make an appearance and then disappear.

Headed for Berkeley

        Ms. Womack is leaving in August for Berkeley, Calif., where husband Michael Oxley begins a four-year program at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. California born and raised, Ms. Womack is going home, but not without some regrets.

        She arrived in 1980, a 22-year-old ballet major at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music but soon learned that dancing swans and sylphs were not for her. Cincinnati is where she found her niche and developed a contemporary dance style that depends as much on other artists' input as her own.

        Mr. Gottesman, Ms. Womack's longtime collaborator, is also leaving. He'll work on a master's in dance at Ohio State University.

        “Teaching has worked its way to the front of my dancing,” he says, adding his marriage last year to wife Michelle prompted the decision. With a degree, he can teach on the college level and maybe say goodbye to endless nights of bartending to support his dance habit.

        That leaves Ms. Wallace the lone director.

        “I think it's the end of Dance Projects. E-CASE will continue for another year and I'll be involved in that. I really don't have an answer - my plans are ungelled and I'll take time to consider what to do,” she says.

        Ms. Womack is optimistic about contemporary dance's future in Cincinnati. Citing new money being promised for small groups by the Fine Arts Fund, she sees a supportive mood for new things to happen. “We're leaving and I'm sad, but it makes room for new things to happen.”

        • What: Dance Projects in Disappearing Acts

        • When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. next Sunday

        • Where: Aronoff Center for the Arts, Jarson-Kaplan Theater

        • Tickets: $12, $10 students and seniors, $8 children, at Aronoff box office

        • Information: 241-7469 or 681-5911

        • Also on the program: A first-act performance by Chris Dahlgren with local musicians and Shawn Womack's quartet for herself and local performers Deborah Breuleux, Shellie Cash-Muller and Renee McCafferty that premiered April 30 during Contemporary Dance Theater's Regional Choreographer's Concert.


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