Creative spaces: Dance series finds new ways to bring art to Austin

Dancer and choreographer Jennifer Sherburn works best under pressure. “I don’t do well with idle time,” she says. And that’s a good thing, because her latest project is to create 11 dances in 11 months using venues all over Austin.

So far the busy artist has completed nine installments, and the next one — featuring choreography by Sherburn and guest artists Kelly Hasandras and Olivia O’Hare and an all-male cast of dancers — will run Aug. 9-12 at Impact Hub, a co-working space in North Austin.

Not everyone can handle the logistical hurdles and unpredictable nature of site-specific performance, but Sherburn revels in the challenge of dreaming up a new work each month. She started the project as a way to focus full-time on her dance career and teamed up with lighting designer and producer Natalie George to make it happen.

Each month she invites a guest choreographer to create new work alongside her. “I figured if I was doing all this work for myself and went to the effort to find a space, I wanted to share it with the community who’s been supportive of me,” Sherburn said.

A Fort Worth native, Sherburn started dancing in high school, though “not willingly,” she joked. A friend convinced her to take a dance class to fulfill the physical education requirement, and the teacher encouraged her to join the dance program.

Sherburn took her first choreography class at Austin Community College with Allison Orr of Forklift Danceworks and then went on to earn her undergraduate degree in dance from the University of Hawaii in 2007. In college she studied abroad at the London Contemporary Dance School, and after graduation she moved to New York to work with an experimental ensemble called Troika Ranch.

In 2010 Sherburn moved back to Austin. She didn’t set out to be a site-specific choreographer but soon found that she enjoyed seeking out a specific place that worked with her vision for a dance. “It helps keep ideas fresh,” she said.

“If you wait to consider the space and don’t have an idea before you get there, it’s really rich to work there when you see the architecture and see how the audience works in the space. The vision takes on a life of its own,” she says.

For “11:11,” Sherburn and George have been staging pieces in locations you might not think of as performance spaces, such as Live Oak Brewery, an old furniture warehouse and the former home of Dario’s restaurant in East Austin. George, who spent 10 years as a producer with Fusebox Festival, loves the way site-specific work can engage the audience. Working together, Sherburn and George carefully consider how the guests will move through and interact with the space in order to create a fully immersive experience.

For example, the team staged the seventh installment in May at Sertodo Copper, where Sherburn used to work as operations manager. When Sherburn went to the site for a visit, seeing cars parked down a long, skinny driveway gave her the idea to do a piece that evoked the drive-in movie experience. The audience sat in cars and viewed the show through the windows. Car radios were tuned to 94.1, a frequency created just for the performance that featured the voice of KUT’s Rick McNulty. The headlights from the cars cast beams of light that dancers filled with movement.

Other dances have put Sherburn into collaboration with communities. In July, the ninth dance of the series was staged at Community First Village, a 27-acre master-planned community founded by Alan Graham of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which offers permanent homes to the homeless and people with disabilities. Sherburn conducted a movement workshop with residents who then choreographed part of her piece. Guest choreographer Lisa Ann Kobdish set her dancers off to run through the entire community, inviting the audience to join. Residents sold concessions during the performance as a way to earn money.

The 10th performance at Impact Hub will be one of the first pieces to engage with North Austin. “We’re both excited that we’re in a new ZIP code,” George said. “We’ve been trying to move around the city, and it’s been harder to get places farther out.”

When creating a new dance, Sherburn likes to consider the history of a place. Impact Hub used to be a recreational center for the Texas Ranger Division that featured an indoor swimming pool, and designers left the original pool tiles up to become part of the co-working space. Sherburn is planning to incorporate an aquatic theme, the history of the Rangers and the architecture of the space into her newest dance.

The “11:11” series will culminate with a final performance series in September at Carson Creek Ranch, featuring guest choreographer Rosalyn Nasky. Sherburn and George plan to reproduce the two most popular pieces from the series sometime next year.

After almost a year of being in the pressure cooker, of having something “knocking at my door constantly,” Sherburn says she thinks that at the end of the series she will be ready to develop something more slowly. But she won’t soon forget what she’s learned from her cross-town adventure.

“People are more open-minded and willing to open their doors than people assume,” she says. “They really want to cross-pollinate ideas and welcome audiences into their homes.”

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