Even as a professional dancer of 11 years and the creative director and founder of SHAPESHIFT, Ashley Selmer still works a full-time job—as do most of the other performers in her Minneapolis-based storytelling dance company. After her busy days as general manager of the Coven, she attends late-night rehearsals that extend into the midnight hour, where she and her team work through dancer-specific challenges in the form of injuries, illnesses, and sore bodies. On a human level, though, the challenges they face are on par with the rest of us—from loss and love to issues of social injustice.
To raise awareness of these topics, people often speak or write. Some protest, while others stay silent. But SHAPESHIFT employs a different approach: one that uses dance and visual storytelling as a catalyst for social change.
The interdisciplinary company will build on its reputation with this weekend’s never-before-seen expansion of Grey Skies Blue, a 90-minute performance that originally debuted in 2016 to sold-out crowds at the Cowles Center. “It’s about being in a dark place but finding warmth in the light—literally turning your gray skies into blue,” Selmer says.
The company’s diverse pool of both studio- and street-trained dancers illuminates this idea through a series of vignettes and storylines; multiple dance genres, including contemporary, hip hop, breaking, house, urban, and musical theater; and a wide range of song selections from “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King to soul-filled R&B jams by Ciara.
The 2020 performances (February 28 & 29 at 7:30 p.m.) enhance and add to the previous version, with several new dance pieces, new members, and the results of extensive acting coaching with H. Adam Harris—a highly acclaimed local actor and resident teaching artist with the Guthrie Theater and Children’s Theatre Co. “Now, the performance is much more rich in its authenticity,” Selmer says.
That authenticity shines through the creative team’s concepts and choreography, both of which showcase the real life challenges and hardships the performers have faced (either first or secondhand) in their own lives. “We’re sharing personal experiences, and that makes it so much more honest,” says Corey Bozeman, a SHAPESHIFT company member of seven years. “You’re going to see [the company] all together, but then there are pieces where you’ll see me dealing with who I am and struggling with my identity.”
Other pieces illuminate themes of discrimination, betrayal, addiction, and more. But no matter the topic, the performances are designed to simply get audience members talking and reflecting on their perspectives. “We always hope it sparks in-the-car dialogue, where folks will walk away from the show, dissect who the characters are, and why they made the choices they did,” Selmer says. (Spoiler: That same dialogue will start to spread across the country come October, when the company will embark on an eight-city tour of Grey Skies Blue—all thanks to a tour grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board.)
“We’ve performed versions of [the show] in New York, we’ve done it in Indianapolis, and we’ve gotten amazing feedback,” Bozeman says. “I’m just really excited to come home and finally show people what we do.”
Q&A with the SHAPESHIFT Creative Team
An inside look at the personalities and team dynamic behind SHAPESHIFT’s creative masterminds: Ashley Selmer, Corey Bozeman, Rachel Miller, Gabriel Blackburn, and Alan Mure.
Do you have any pre-show rituals? “We cozy up in a company huddle, spreading and sharing good energy and our intentions for the show.”
What’s your company’s motto? “Only up!”
What’s your favorite SHAPESHIFT travel memory? “Sharing Grey Skies Blue at The Kennedy Center in D.C. with youth from all over the city. After the show, they wanted us to have dance battles with them and autograph their arms. For a second, we felt like The Beatles.”
What are your Carpool Karaoke songs of choice? “‘No Air’ by Jordin Sparks, ‘Let Me Love You’ by Mario, ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ by Whitney Houston, and ‘Love on Top’ by Beyonce.”
What’s your favorite thing about working in the company? “The mix of dance and theater, the collaborative culture, and the ability to open eyes through movement.”
See Grey Skies Blue February 28 and 29 at the O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul. Call 651-690-6700 or visit theoshaughnessy.com for tickets.