1. What influences are important to you and your choreography?

Shannon Gillen © Emily Terndrup
Shannon Gillen
© Emily Terndrup
I grew up with a lot of freedom and exposed to nature; both of which I think are integral to my choreographic work. My parents have always been incredibly present and invested in what I do, but from early on my independent streak was supported. And I think having those hours to wander through the woods, to daydream and reflect, gave balance to what is otherwise a pretty driven personality. This process is still a part of my creative work today. Through allowing myself to absorb the happenings around me something inevitably grips hold of my attention. It's often simple at first, like a stray fact or image, or even a scene I experience during the day. Then the rigorous part of me is activated and I dig into these ideas and images. And in this process other thoughts, disruptions, objects, movements, and sound can erupt. Often unrelated imagery that heightens the original content will surface and I'll play with how these seemingly disparate elements interact. I am curious about how the composite elements of our experience can suddenly align into strange, electric constellations that make us feel deeply. How light, color, material, history, functionality, and narrative frames at times coalesce into something that can rocket through the senses and bring one into immediacy with the everything at hand. 

VAROSHA by Shannon Gillen © Mallory Lynn
VAROSHA by Shannon Gillen
© Mallory Lynn

2. What (if anything) do you want audiences to take away from your choreography?

The immediacy of live performance is what I love. The experience that offers a delicious and immediate response, into the next response, into an ever folding, intricate, 'jacob's ladder' type of presence. I think that I hope that the strange gap between audience and performer is lost in the activity of the moment. So in the choreographic research that I do, I look for this strange harmonic quality between the intellect, instinct and emotional experience; a balance that keeps the room charged. And because I approach my work from the aim of manifesting compelling experiences, I hope that what I create heightens whatever response is elicited in the viewer and offers them a way to connect with their own perspectives.

3. Is there a piece of your choreography that you are most satisfied with? Why?

In the last few years and in particular after this year of dancing and creating in Germany, I've found new ways to explore the content that interests me. I recently created a solo titled COLD BRIGHT SHE that deals a lot with juxtaposition between projected words and the female form. I started by writing a collection of statements and propositions that engaged the viewer and that activated their imaginations on the body. This made me consider our relationship to truth and the written word and it became very interesting to me to test the limits of this on stage. I also had time with this project to work with the dancer in great specificity about the behavior I was interested in playing with in combination with virtuosic movement vocabulary. It's been important for me to research ways to continue to draw forth the emotional life that is essential to my dances, while finding even more extreme movement languages for the body. And I was also able to edit the music score from two pieces I have been fascinated by for years: Ligeti's Atmospheres for a large Orchestra and Joan Sutherland's Flower Duet. I mashed them together with a bunch of found sound and created this incredibly textured sonic environment to play inside. This was the first piece I made while working here in Europe and I was thrilled to be invited to bring the work to the Solo-Tanz Festival in Stuttgart where it received Third Prize in Dance. I've been invited to bring the solo to the Mainfranken Theater in Würzburg in July and it will tour Germany in the fall. It feels like a definitive step in the direction I am interested in taking my work; namely an electric and responsive place where nothing is taken for granted and where the body's heroism, instinct, unpredictability, emotion and failure are let loose. 

COLD BRIGHT SHE by Shannon Gillen © Solo-Tanz Theater Competition Stuttgart
COLD BRIGHT SHE by Shannon Gillen
© Solo-Tanz Theater Competition Stuttgart


4. How important to your choreography is your relationship with the dancers who perform it?

Critical. So much of what I create works with human behavior and it takes time to establish trust and depth in this area between myself and the dancers. Who they are, how they react and what their instincts are at a given moment influence me so much in the direction I take the work, because eventually this needs to be terrain that they can lose themselves in. Essentially I am creating a house of infinite detail so that the dancers and the audience alike can believe in the experience; not so much that we are somewhere else, but rather that something is definitely happening right now. Who these dancers are is an essential part of that – it's really not easy for me to 'replace' someone. In fact, when this has albeit rarely happened for scheduling reasons, we addressed this dramatic shift in chemistry. The piece itself changed and this was absolutely something we had to explore.

Shannon Gillen © Joanna McClure for Brooklyn Magazine
Shannon Gillen
© Joanna McClure for Brooklyn Magazine

5. When you’re creating a new piece, how and where do you begin? What do you enjoy most about the process?

My dances reflect my interest in galvanizing the body’s potential to express intellectual and emotional concepts. Hopscotching the cartesian split, I am obsessed with how ideas inspire the body to move and inversely how the body ignites the mind. Inclusive in this focus is the murky, mysterious territory of instinct, impulse, and spontaneous invention, all of which guide the initial rigorous research and eventual performance of each piece I create. To facilitate this I ground each work in several potent and often conflicting concepts, weaving them together in extreme ways. Then by thrusting the body into this intense framework, I can explore the dark corners of who we are under these conditions. My intention in this process is to manifest the seductive and anxiety producing moments of unknown outcomes and to find ways to incite, in both viewer and performer, the spontaneous reactions of our unadorned selves. I want to create opportunities for our sense of self and our sense of the world to become open to challenge, where the conceived lens through which we exist has the possibility to shift under the pressure of new perspectives. There is nothing quite as sweet as suddenly seeing things with new eyes.

© Shannon Gillen
© Shannon Gillen

6. How is making dance works changing? Where do you hope choreography will go in future?

There a great deal more collaboration and today the dancer is often generating a lot of the movement and other material. While dancing here in Germany that method of creation has been really wonderful, as it has allowed me to stay involved in a choreographic head space. However in my own pieces, I generate most (if not all) of the material. Of course I work closely with the dancers and if there is a better pathway we explore that instinct, or if there is something I can imagine but can't get my 33 year old bones to accomplish, we talk our way there. For me there is a lot of satisfaction in creating material that operates like a script, and through rigor and detail becomes oddly spontaneous even though its deeply crafted. For some artists I know that they like to shape and edit with larger pieces (phrases/scenes) and are less concerned with steps, but for me I can't help but relish the delight of touching every movement. Beyond the pleasure it gives me to invent 'steps' or sequences, it also gives me incredible insight into the reality the dancer experiences and helps me to dig further into that psychology. All of that said, I think I'm headed towards a combination where I can ask more creative input from the dancers and also more from myself as director. I also hope to enter into collaborative research with artists in other mediums (video, set, sound, costume) much earlier in my process and to find new ways of integrating and layering this into the creations. 

A COLORED IMAGE OF THE SUN by Shannon Gillen © Breegan Kearney
© Breegan Kearney


Shannon Gillen, Artistic Director of Shannon Gillen + Guests graduated from The Juilliard School in 2003 where she received her BFA and was later awarded a full fellowship to attend Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, where she earned her Masters in Dance 2013. Within those ten years she became an established independent choreographer with a passionate fan base and sold out performances at prestigious national and international venues. In a 2013 Brooklyn Magazine article that named her as one of city's top twenty artists, Gillen was championed for her 'emotionally compelling' work that 'transcends the things it references and achieves a sort of platonic ideal of intelligent and elevated movement'. This past year Gillen was invited to join the Johannes Wieland Company at the Staatstheater Kassel, Germany as a full time company member. She has since danced in 56 international performances and was singled out in the press for being 'in top form, a feat of strength' (HNA, German News).

A prolific creator, Gillen has choreographed 14 new works since 2010 that have received national and international recognition, including commissions at Treffpunkt-Rotebuehlplatz in Stuttgart, Springboard Danse Montreal Festival, DTW, The Joyce Theater, Dance New Amsterdam, HERE Arts Center, with Movement Research at Judson Church, Tangente Theater with the Montreal Fringe Festival, PULSE Art Fair as part of Art Basel in Miami, the Joyce SoHo season and as a finalist in the The AWARD Show!, with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Sitelines Series as part of NYC's River to River Festival, Bryant Park Presents Dance Series, Festival Oltre Passo in Italy, The Juilliard School, and Jacob’s Pillow, among others.

While working in Germany this past year, Gillen’s creations burst onto the scene with her solo COLD BRIGHT SHE receiving 3rd Prize in Dance at the International Solo-Tanz Competition in Stuttgart along with upcoming commissions at the Mainfranken Theater Würzburg and the TIF Theater in Kassel. She was also recently selected as a THINK BIG choreographer with the Staatsoper in Hannover, Germany and will be in residence this August to create a new piece that will premiere at the TANZ Theater International Festival in September 2014. She was also commissioned this fall to create new works for NYU’s Second Avenue Dance Company and the Purchase Dance Company at SUNY.