Transformer: Dancemaker Jennifer Sherburn goes new places

From a backyard pool to a dressage stable to a brewery, the Austin choreographer transforms unlikely spaces into places for contemporary dance


Choreographer Jennifer Sherburn has had her mind in the gutter— in the space between two panels in a comic book, that is.

“I got super fascinated by the gutter,” Sherburn explains. “That’s where the reader’s mind gets to make a bunch of choices.”

Sherburn admits she knew next to nothing about comic books before she began researching them for “Meanwhile…,” her most recent evening-length work, which premiered at the Rogge Ranch House in June 2019. Originally, she was inspired by the format, interested in how the style has managed to stay relatively the same over time, yet can still feel current and hold today’s ever-shortening attention spans.

“How can I do that in dance?” Sherburn wondered. “How can I create a dance where I have a pace which is dynamic and engaging that can also be read between the lines?”

She began making frequent visits to the comic book store, guided by graphic designer and collaborator Jon Windham, who she calls her “comic book mentor.”

“We focused a lot on time and transitions, and how they operate in that world,” Windham says. “What happens between the panels? How can time seem to be passing within a single frame? How is a sense of movement created? She soaked it all up like a sponge.”

Jennifer Sherburn's "Meanwhile."
Jennifer Sherburn’s “Meanwhile” was inspired by comic books and action heroes. Photo by Rip Shaub

To create the timing and movement quality she was after, Sherburn and her team designed and built a series of eight-foot platform structures with ladders extending upwards, connecting to 20-foot high deer stands. They also rigged bungees in the center of the space, enabling the dancers to bounce and fly around, vertically and horizontally, in true comic book fashion.

Transforming spaces has become a hallmark of Sherburn’s work. For 2018’s “Drive-In,” held outdoors at Rogge Ranch, the audience was guided along a grassy path before reaching their seats, where the stage space itself was defined by multiple moving vehicles. In recent years she has also turned a brewing company, a dressage stable, and an empty restaurant building into venues for contemporary dance

It is no wonder, perhaps, that Sherburn once planned on becoming an architect.

Something to Prove

Sherburn began dancing while in high school in Fort Worth, and was still fairly new to it when she found out about a senior project opportunity to choreograph a piece.

“A light bulb went off completely,” she says. “I was like, ‘what? I get to make a dance? I would much rather do that.”

She spent the summer before senior year working on her choreography and had the whole piece planned out and ready to go.

“It was based off a recipe for my mom’s smoothies,” Sherburn recalls, laughing. “And the song was from Portishead.”

But when the school year began and it came time to start rehearsals, the dance teacher informed her that she couldn’t put on her piece after all. Apparently, Sherburn had been deemed ineligible for the senior project because she had gone to a different high school for one year, while all of the other choreographers had been there for the full four years.

“I thought that was a bullshit lame excuse for maybe (the dance teacher) didn’t believe in me or something,” Sherburn says, shrugging.

After finishing high school, she began taking prerequisite courses toward a degree in architecture at a junior college in Dallas, but ended up moving to Austin on a whim.

“Out of spite, as soon as I got to Austin, I took my first choreography class with Allison Orr [at Austin Community College] and started choreographing,” Sherburn says. “Well, not just out of spite, but I was destined to prove [that high school teacher] wrong.”

It was during those early days at ACC that Sherburn and I first met, and I was cast as a dancer in one of her pieces. Enough time has passed, and we are good enough friends that I can admit I was confused and doubtful during many of our early rehearsals. She had a vision that I did not see, and I was not sure that she could pull it off. But when the performance rolled around, I too was proven very wrong.

Sherburn found herself increasingly drawn toward choreography and performance, and after meeting with a college advisor, she let go of her plans to major in architecture to focus on dance full-time. She trained at ACC and London Contemporary Dance School, before ultimately earning a degree in dance from the University of Hawaii.

After graduation, she moved to New York City before returning to Austin in 2010, lured by family and uncertain housing in the city. Before she was even back in town she had been booked as the choreographer for a former company called Tongue and Groove Theatre. Her brother, composer Justin Sherburn, picked her up from the airport and drove her straight to rehearsal.

“I kind of hit the ground running in that regard,” Sherburn says, “which was a pretty warm welcome.”

Everyone is Invited

Sherburn is something of an expert on the warm welcome herself. She is committed to bringing in new audiences for her performances, and actively seeks partnerships with people and places outside the traditional dance community. Most recently, in preparation for “Meanwhile…,” she introduced herself to the folks at Austin Books and Comics and Austin Comic Con, and also popped into various hotels, meeting with concierge and handing out comp tickets.

For the horse-inspired “Arena” (2016), which took place at Fair Oaks Farm in Dripping Springs, Sherburn teamed up with local chefs and after every performance the audience was invited to stay for a family-style dinner.

“‘Arena’ was pretty special,” Sherburn reflects. “It was the first time I truly got to pull together both my passions, hospitality and performance.”

She keeps finding ways to bring out the hospitality in others as well. Her aquatic piece “Riverside” (2016) was staged in the backyard pool of a private Austin residence. Sherburn did not even know the homeowners prior to the production, but reached out through a mutual friend, intent on sharing her idea and bringing the project to life.

“I proved to myself during [“Arena” and “Riverside”] that I do have what it takes to see a vision through that may require some extra work, and convincing other folks, and having to create a new collaboration process,” Sherburn says.

"Lapse," one Sherburn's dance in her "11:11" project
“Lapse,” one Sherburn’s dance in her “11:11” project. Photo by Sarah Annie Navarrete

Perhaps her most expansive and collaborative vision to date has been “11:11,” a series of eleven dances in eleven months from 2016-2017. Co-produced with Natalie George Productions, the project moved to a new, offbeat venue almost every month and brought together a dynamic, rotating mix of collaborators. The work of a new choreographer-in-residence was featured every month as well.

“[Sherburn’s] openness to and eagerness for new perspectives and ideas is so inspiring,” shares Windham. “As is her ability to absorb creative input from varied sources, sometimes seemingly completely unrelated to the task at hand, and construct wonderfully unique work through collaboration and co-discovery.”

As a choreographer, Sherburn’s process involves mutual investigation with her dancers, a multi-talented group of artists that has recently included Amy Myers, Taryn Lavery, Sarah Annie Navarrette, Lisa Ann Kobdish, and Clay Moore.

“[Sherburn] tends to have an amazing grasp of the big picture when it comes to creating,” says Myers, who is perhaps Sherburn’s most long-term co-conspirator, having worked with her on at least twenty productions. “She gives her collaborators guidance and tools for creating shapes and sequences that become the building blocks which she manipulates and uses to build that picture.”

Sherburn has many more big pictures she is ready to build, and new collaborations and projects continue to spark. She recently made her first foray into VR, partnering with composer William West and multimedia production company FLOW NONFICTION to create “Stolen,” a spin-off of the previous piece “Drive-In.” She is also currently in conversation with the owner of Rogge Ranch, hatching plans for further shared endeavors, while continuing to scout new potential venues to transform. She is interested in a tennis court this time.

“I simply just get inspired as an artist and then I get addicted to that inspiration and become bound and determined to bring people into it,” Sherburn says with conviction. “Once an idea happens, once I’ve realized how the performers and the audience might experience the piece, then it becomes something I have to share with people. Like, I need somebody to experience this!”

Molly Roy
Molly Roy
Molly Roy is a dancer, choreographer, and information professional based in Austin. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Performance as Public Practice at the University of Texas.

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