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In Memorium, 10-11: Danial Shapiro
Turning Darkness into Light

By Linda Shapiro
Copyright 2006 Linda Shapiro

Danial Shapiro, artistic co-director of Shapiro & Smith Dance and a pivotal player on the national dance scene for two decades, died October 3, at the age of 48. Shapiro was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago and passed away peacefully in Atlantic City, New Jersey in the company of his family, including wife and creative partner Joanie Smith, and long-time friend and company member Kelly Drummond-Cawthon. With Smith, he created more than 25 works for Shapiro & Smith Dance as well as other companies, including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Phoenix Dance Company of Leeds, UK and the PACT Dance Company in Pretoria, South Africa. His impact on the field extended to a four-year term as a member of the dance panel of the New York State Council on the Arts.

(l-r) Michael Blake, Toni Pierce-Sands, and Danial Shapiro in Shapiro & Smith's "ANYTOWN: Stories of America." Photo by and copyright Paul Vertucio.

"His heroism was amazing," said Carl Flink, who directs the dance program at the University of Minnesota, where Shapiro taught, and who danced in Shapiro & Smith's most recent work. "He did not let the disease bend him."

Born in Syracuse, NY, Shapiro grew up in Los Angeles and moved to New York City to join the Murray Louis Dance Company in 1978. He married Smith in 1985, and they struck out on their own to form Shapiro & Smith Dance in 1987. They relocated to Minnesota in 1995, when Smith was named the Barker Endowed Chair professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. The two gained an international reputation for dance performances characterized by biting wit, vigorous physically, structural rigor, and emotional heft. Shapiro and Smith often tackled serious and controversial subjects through their choreography, including the Holocaust ("What Dark/Falling Into Light"), loss and mourning ("To Have and To Hold"), and dysfunctional families ("Family"). They created several large scale collaborative works, including Babel, with the Ilkhom Theater in Uzbekistan, and the 2005 "ANYTOWN: Stories of America," a folk opera with music by Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, and Soozie Tyrell.

"'ANYTOWN' invades your heart, and some moments almost stop it," the Village Voice's Deborah Jowitt wrote of the work earlier this year. Added the Star-Ledger's Robert Johnson: "Shapiro & Smith pry beneath the upholstered fabric of everyday life. They tear apart the illusion of material well-being to reveal the conflicts, angst, and sheer craziness that turn ordinary people into monsters." To Twin Cities critic Camille LeFevre, "ANYTOWN" was "a deeply emotional, intelligent dance work, without ever being sentimental, which is one way I'd describe Danny, as well."

Throughout the work's creation and last year' s debut tour, Shapiro battled his cancer through chemotherapy and blood transfusions. He created the campaign "PSA in the USA," a partnership between Us Too and the national tour of "ANYTOWN," with a goal of reaching one million men during the tour.

As a performer, Shapiro was compelling, gifted with powerful physicality, sinuous grace, and a pulsating sense of humanity. Whether hurtling through a series of pratfalls and one-liners in his solo "Shtick" or gently partnering a lover in "ANYTOWN," he always revealed the vulnerable man beneath the accomplished dancer.

Exuberant and witty with a questing mind and a sharp intellect, Shapiro began exploring the Internet and pioneering new technologies in distance learning and dance-making via the Internet 2 Access Grid. He organized mid-career artists to explore career development opportunities. In New York, he was a member of NYSCA's influential dance panel from 1996 to 2000. "He was an exemplary panelist," recalled Beverly D'Anne, director of NYSCA's Dance Program, "objective, a keen observer of dance, very conscientious about his responsibilities -- also charming and witty. He is a great loss to the dance field, as an artist and as a wonderful human being."

Shapiro embraced life in Minnesota, tramping through the North woods and numerous snow drifts with his adored dogs. He loved scuba diving in Hawaii and Mexico, the streets of New York City, Internet video games, good wine, lively conversation, stylish clothes, bad puns, poker, and vintage cars. He is survived by his wife and artistic partner, Joanie Smith, siblings Paul, Judy, Jane, and mother Susanne, his dogs Bessie and Max and cat Bearcat, and his beloved extended family of dancers and collaborators. (To read some of their remembrances, please click here.)

Memorial services will be held in Minneapolis early next month, when the company performs "ANYTOWN" at the Southern Theater, and in New York City this winter, dates and times TBA. Donations in Danny's memory can be made to US Too, Int'l, 5003 Fairview Ave., Downers Grove, IL 60515 or via the Web at www.ustoo.org/MakeaDonation.asp. Letters to Joanie Smith can be addressed to: Joanie Smith, Barbara Barker Center for Dance, 500 21st Ave. South, Minneapolis, MN 55455.

Linda Shapiro -- no relation to Danial -- is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

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