Jennifer Sherburn's Riverside

With her new site-specific dance, the Austin choreographer says, "Come on in, the water's fine!"

Photos by Devaki Knowles

"Hi Peter, this is Jennifer, choreographer friend of Charles. I'm interested in finding a kind fella with a pool to host my next dance performance. I'd love to talk more about it and perhaps see the pool! I'm pretty flexible right now, let me know when you'd like to meet. Thanks!"

That's the text that Jennifer Sherburn sent to Peter Van Zandt, introducing herself and the idea of using his backyard swimming pool at his Tarrytown home for the site of Riverside, a new movement piece she was developing that would be rooted in the relationships people have with those large waterways that wind through countrysides and often, as with Austin, the heart of a city. "Over the last couple of years, I've been getting to know some special people throughout Central Texas and learning a little more about the history here, from Comanches to cedar choppers to folks who live here today," Sherburn says. "I've been fortunate to walk private nature preserves along the riparian zones of local rivers and swim in secret swimming holes just south of town. When I walk the river, I'm reminded that I've taken for granted how critical a role local rivers play in our lives and throughout history."

That Sherburn should come to recognize the importance of rivers this way was only a matter of time given her natural attraction to H2O. "I love water and I love swimming," she says. "Secret swimming holes are my ultimate favorite, especially when there is a rope to swing from or a cliff to jump off of. I also love swimming and wakeboarding in lakes. I love swimming far distances in calm waters. I love currents and waves, but I'll take those close to the beach or by boat. I love boating. If I could get everywhere by boat, I would.

"My beliefs don't weigh heavy in astrology, but for full disclosure, I happen to be a Pisces."

That goes a long way toward explaining why this dance that Sherburn had in mind couldn't be just about water. It had to be in water, as in dancers diving into the stuff and moving through it. She had considered staging the work on a real riverside, had, in fact, been inspired by the environment at Fiesta Gardens for years. But as a dancer in the 2011 Blue Lapis Light work Devotion, a site-specific spectacular set at the intake building of the power plant on Lady Bird Lake in which performers moved in and out of the water, Sherburn had a firsthand view of the complexities in working with a massive, constantly moving body of water. (Her participation in the work was limited to traversing the side of the building in harnesses with ropes, so she never got near the water, but still ....) Sherburn thought she might benefit from a much more controlled environment, and with Riverside being conceived on a fraction of the scale of Devotion, the choreographer figured a swimming pool in a shady green backyard could fill the bill.

A friend who had volunteered for Sherburn's most recent dance, Arena – also site-specific, but set inside a dressage stable in Dripping Springs – knew that the choreographer was looking for a location with water in town and thought the Van Zandts were open-minded and generous enough to let a gaggle of dancer-swimmers, some designers, and dozens of total strangers camp on their lawn for a week in mid-September. In the, ahem, wake of Sherburn's text to Van Zandt, she says, "We talked the next evening by phone and met in person to look at the pool. When I walked into the yard, it was clear that these were adventurous folks: There was a drum kit set up poolside and a slackline already rigged between two trees. I knew instantly that we were on the same page. Peter and his parents" – who also happen to be his next-door neighbors – "are passionate environmental consultants. We've had some great conversations about how critical rivers are to the life of adjacent ecosystems. They helped me reflect on the relationship people have with rivers and celebrate with dance in their backyard nestled alongside Austin's very own riparian zone."

It was only when Sherburn was connected with the space that she began to work out how she would use it in Riverside. "For me, it feels important not to prepare too much before going into the space," she says. "Once you are in the space, everything changes. It almost seems unfair to impose an outside plan into a space that is so unique, it just doesn't do it justice. You really have to consider your surroundings to deliver considerate work."

And in this instance, that principle extended to the water itself. While Riverside was built around the idea of dancers in water, Sherburn started the project without knowing how they would move in the water or out of it. "I have never choreographed anything in the water before, aside from being a part of Devotion, in which I stayed completely dry," says Sherburn. "I had no set ideas ahead of time, but creative exercises that propelled us right into great discoveries. The cast is so incredibly talented, they make everything look so easy. With that said, we've had to create new techniques for getting in and out of the pool and moving at certain speeds, etc. Would be a great field study for a physics class!"

And what differences has she discovered between dancing in water and dancing out of water?

"Weight and balance" are critically different in the two environments, Sherburn says. "Movement qualities you can perform with force and gravity aren't at all the same in the water. Water pushes back. There is so much support and so much resistance simultaneously; to execute certain moves with precision is tough. On the flip side, it is so much fun to play with the textures of the water by splashing vigorously or spilling our bodies over the side of the pool like liquid mercury into the water without a single splash. It's incredibly liberating to float and suspend. Oftentimes, as dancers, there is imagery we think of when adding intention or dynamic to movement. It is so satisfying to see and feel how the water accentuates the choreography."

Still, amidst all the splashing and spilling and sliding and swimming, the company for Riverside have strived to make their dance production/physics lesson not feel like a home invasion for the Van Zandts. And so far, the hosts seem comfortable with their new backyard guests. "We just typically try to give them space to carry on with their weekend pool time without interruption," says Sherburn. "Before rehearsal, Peter tells us to 'shine bright and have a good time!'"

Riverside will be performed Sept. 14-17, Wed.-Sat., 8pm, at 2905 Bonnie. For more information, visit

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Jennifer Sherburn, Austin dance, site-specific dance, Blue Lapis Light, Devotion, Peter Van Zandt

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