A Conversation with Joanie Smith of Shapiro & Smith Dance

For nearly 30 years, modern troupe Shapiro & Smith Dance has skillfully skirted the line between pathos and humor, coupling fiercely athletic movement with powerful storytelling. Whether the dancers are sliding across a set of nondescript wooden benches, slippery as fish, in To Have and To Hold, or thrashing around on household furniture in Anytown, an unflinching account of working-class family life, the work of husband and wife team Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith endures because it resonates with so many.

Though Shapiro passed away in 2006, the resilient Smith still premieres at least one new piece and revives an older work each year. “I like to have something on the program that Danny choreographed,” she says. The Minnesota-based company will celebrate its 28th anniversary season April 2–4 at the Cowles Center in Minneapolis.

Creating To Have and To Hold (aka “the bench piece”) “We’d gone to Finland for a year—I’d gotten a Fulbright lectureship—and when we came back to the U.S. 9 or 10 months later, it just seemed that everything had changed. So many people had died of AIDS, there were divorces. We started thinking how slippery relationships are—they just slide by. So that’s where we came up with the benches, and that’s why we slide on them. We wanted the most simple, the barest kind of seating.”

Her favorite audience reaction “I love it when people see themselves in the work. It’s a great compliment when people come up after the shows and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s just what happened to me!’ Even if it’s a more abstract work. That’s incredible to me.”

How she works “I’m slow. I’m slooooooow. I envy those people who can choreograph so quickly! But the dancers—I’m so lucky. People have been with me for quite a while. Oftentimes, I’ll start moving and I’ll say, ‘Something like this,’ and they’ll start improvising with me. I need that, because I’m 63. And my 63-year-old body can’t begin to imagine some of the stuff they can do. I like working in a big chaotic room with lots of people.”

When Danial met Joanie “We were at UCLA together. He was a freshman and I was a graduate student. (Yes, I’m a cougar.) I knew who Danny was, but he wasn’t a friend of mine. And then when I got to New York, Murray Louis had just had auditions for men. I heard that some kid from California got in. And I thought, ‘Danny!’ Sure enough. The next year, I got into the Murray Louis company, and Danny and I had all of these duets together. And we fought! We did not like each other. But I don’t know…one thing led to another, and suddenly we were in love. Somehow we knew that we were going to choreograph together. I don’t know how much I believe in destiny, but that’s certainly an example of it.” DT

Education: BA from University of Maryland; MA from University of California at Los Angeles

Performance: danced in the companies of Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais; founded Shapiro & Smith Dance with her husband Danial Shapiro in 1987

Teaching: professor at the University of Minnesota

Photo by Tim Rummelhoff, courtesy of Smith

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