Let It All In
Jennifer Sherburn’s choreography of radical receptivity
by Brittani Sonnenberg
Photography by Leah Muse
THE SKY IS BROODING AND OVERcast when I sit down for coffee with choreographer Jennifer Sherburn and her producer and creative soul mate, Natalie George. The two twist to the clouds and check phones for weather updates. Sherburn’s latest dance piece in a series of eleven, “Hopfen und Waltz,” opens in three days, in a grove of live oak trees. Sherburn shrugs as a couple of light drops land on her arm. If you’re a choreographer working in unconventional spaces, you adapt to shifting weather patterns with your fingers crossed and a farmer’s chagrin.
Sherburn, in fact, spent her very early childhood on a small farm tucked into Fort Worth. “I was constantly outside,” she says. A proud tom-boy, Sherburn and her best friend, Antonio, loved nothing more than playing in the dirt. Sherburn’s pockets were always full of worms, which would inevitably find their way onto Antonio’s grandmother’s pristine shag carpet. “I had two brothers, and we loved playing tug of war and rough-housing,” says Sherburn. “Barbies were props for the haunted houses we created.”
Dance didn’t capture Sherburn’s imagination until she took a class in high school. For the final choreography project, she stole a smoothie recipe card from her mother’s collection. “The recipe was full of movement instructions: blend, stir, chop. I applied them to dance and we practiced and performed it in the schoolyard closest to my house.”
Over the years, Sherburn has honed this approach—allowing herself to be inspired by whatever object or environment snags her attention, devoting her focus to it, and offering an interpretation full of both play and reverence—to create thrilling, moving, and unconventional work. She revels in unexpected locales and cleverly weaves them into her choreography. Take “Arena,” Sherburn’s first major collaboration with George as a producer. The two knew they wanted to set something on Fair Oaks Farm, a 33-acre ranch in Dripping Springs, but it wasn’t until they met one of the owners, Nancy Fair, a champion dressage rider, that the idea of incorporating a riding arena, and dressage, into the dance struck Sherburn. “Natalie and I were blown away by the Fairs’ dedication to form and practices, and how much they cared for the land everyday,” says Sherburn.
“It was dreamy,” adds George. “They welcomed us in; they were incredibly helpful and supportive. Learning about them changed the piece drastically.”
Nancy’s husband, Bud, initially treated the project with polite skepticism, says George. “He ate dinner quickly with us, then went to watch TV. But as the work developed, he grew more enthusiastic, bringing extension cords and raking the arena with a tractor before the dressage and the dance began.” Sherburn was so taken by the 81-year-old’s expert raking that she incorporated it into the performance, and Fair turned out to be quite the showman, throwing in a couple of extra spins for the audience.
While some artists try to forget about the audience while they’re composing, Sherburn and George treat such considerations as a joyful part of the process, meditating on how to heighten audience engagement from the moment they pull into the parking lot. The two women’s respective work experience outside the dance community—Sherburn has spent 20 years in the food industry, initially as a fine dining waitress and later as a training manager at places like Perla’s and Clark’s, while George served as the producing director of Fusebox Festival—has sharpened this expertise.
Inviting hospitality to be a driving ethos lends a humility and kindness to Sherburn’s dance pieces, without compromising her sharp vision. For if her integrative philosophy is in part inspired by her early days at a beloved chef’s restaurant in Hawaii—where regulars, dishwashers, and front and back of house all gathered for blind tastings of the new seasonal menu—her choreography is also influenced by cutting-edge artists like Noémie Lafrance and Ann Hamilton (whose “ONEEVERYONE” is currently on display at Dell Medical School). “I love Hamilton’s epic projects, and how they’re never in conventional spaces,” says Sherburn. “Their scale ranges from enormous to the inside of a mouth.” She cites Lafrance’s “Melt” as a favorite dance piece. “Lafrance suspended dancers underneath Brooklyn Bridge at the hottest time of the year, put them in costumes made of honeycomb, and viewers watched them melt in the sun. She turns to spaces for what’s already there.”
In her 11:11 series this year, in which Sherburn partners with a different choreographer each month, she encourages her collaborators to stay flexible, and to avoid planning too much before they see the space. How does she find comfort in this uncertainty? “I don’t know if I’m comfortable with anything yet,” she says. “But I know that magical things happen when you don’t try to fit something in.”
On a Saturday night, I drive out to Live Oak Brewery, a stone’s throw from the airport, to witness the fifth installation of 11:11. It’s pouring.
The audience gathers in the taproom, shaking their heads at the weather and ordering frosty glasses of beer. The idea to partner with Live Oak Brewery emerged from Sherburn’s own romantic partnership with Colin Ferguson, the brewery’s sales manager. Drinking beer one night in the taproom, Sherburn says she realized the enormous windows facing the brewery would be perfect for staging a dance performance. And that’s how the night begins, as “On Mass,” a fierce, urgent dance piece by Errin Delperdang, is staged in the immense panes. An excerpt from “Together and Apart,” a startlingly intimate and wrenching work by Silva Laukkanen and Tanya Winters, follows outside. The rain heightens the piece’s pathos, as one dancer, in a wheelchair, flies down and swoops around the slick surface of the sidewalk, and her partner drapes the two of them in drenched ochre silk, in alternate gestures of devotion and cruelty reminiscent Pina Bausch’s “Rite of Spring.”
Inviting hospitality to be a driving ethos lends a humility and kindness to Sherburn’s Dance pieces, without compromising her sharp vision.
Magically, the skies clear for Sherburn’s “Hopfen und Waltz.” The crowd moves to the grove of live oak trees, perfumed with wet wood chips and rainy night air. I take a seat on a blanket in the front, and dancers in summery floral and flirty polka dot and plaid emerge. The next half hour is a heady blend of revelry, Midsummer Night’s Dream, joyful German beer garden, dreamy solo flights on rope swings, and scrambles up, and winged leaps from, wet picnic tables. It is the abandon of children at play, the grace of grown men and women fully embodied, and the shock of humans becoming tornados and clouds, their own weather. Midway through the piece, the dancers sit at picnic tables facing the audience, grab two cans of beer, open them, offer one to the audience member directly across from them and clink cans. It’s a subtle, funny surprise, but it also speaks to the essence of Sherburn’s approach, yanking the audience in with a friendly, teasing grin, reminding you that the dance in front of you is not simply other bodies spinning, but your body and soul being coaxed into something gentler, wilder, and freer than how you usually walk around.
Catherine Davis’s throbbing original score, the occasional roar of a plane overhead, and the choreography’s lovely, aching tonal swings from solitary flight to partnered grace urge a wellspring of emotions that are as shifting and dramatic as the week’s forecast has been. I am tearing up, then smiling, then sighing, then breathing in deeply, as if I could inhale what all good art also promises you can release: that which we are told to keep tightly wound—hold your tongue, cross your legs, smile for the camera.
Sherburn’s tender, comprehensive approach to creating “Hopfen und Waltz”—from consulting with local arborists They Might Be Monkeys on how to take care of the live oaks during the dance, to discussing memories of travel, flight and departure with the dancers, as she created the piece—results in a stunningly and enveloping experience that reminds me of similarly generous, insightful works in other mediums: Linklater’s “Boyhood,” Jens Lekman’s playful indie rock, photographer Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” Lucky for Austin, Sherburn will stage six more dances over the next six months, several of which will also take place outside, like May’s performance at Sertodo Copper, and September’s performance at Carson Creek Ranch.
A few days after Saturday’s deluge, Sherburn reflects on how the weather influenced “Hopfen und Waltz.” There were the logistical challenges: rearranging audience seating, minimalizing the lighting scheme that George had so carefully designed, adjusting the table-stunt choreography, moving equipment. But the most crucial change, she says, was a group mental preparation, for both the dancers and the audience members. “Everyone adjusted beautifully,” she says. Flexibility is, of course, a fundamental demand of dance as an art form. But the way that Sherburn brings a supple response to each aspect of her choreography, subtly allowing herself to be influenced and inspired by what surrounds her, from airplanes overhead, to the history of German beermaking, to a simple cloak of falling rain, means her work leaps into a territory that makes you feel, for the length of the performance, equally unbound.
April 5-8 @ 8pm
Choreographers: Dawn Stoppiello and Jennifer Sherburn
May 10-13 @ 8pm
Choreographers: Amy Myers and Jennifer Sherburn
June 7-10 @ 8pm
Choreographers: BLiPSWiTCH and Jennifer Sherburn
July 5–8 @ 8pm
Choreographers: Lisa Anne Kobdish and Jennifer Sherburn
August 9–12 @ 8pm
Choreographers: Kelly Hasandras and Jennifer Sherburn
September 6–9 @ 8pm
Choreographers: Rosalyn Nasky and Jennifer Sherburn
Read more from the Outdoors Issue | April 2017