Shapeshift, a Twin Cities dance collective whose co-founders performed with Prince’s band 3rdEyeGirl and which has danced in front of 18,000 people at Xcel Energy Center, was created on the fly.
Three years ago, twenty-something dancers Ashley Selmer and Herbert Johnson III joined to create a show for their generation — something fresh that would feature “all types of dancers, from hip-hop to modern to tap,” Selmer said.
Their November 2013 production at the New Century Theatre sold out. That got the attention of programmers and audiences, which began to build. This weekend, Shapeshift takes the Cowles Center stage with “Grey Skies Blue,” a 75-minute concert that orbits themes of sexual identity, caregiving and betrayal. While it has no dialogue, the production tells three narratives. In one, two young men try to figure out where they fit into society and with each other. In another, roles reverse for a mother and daughter.
Selmer describes the pieces as Broadway-style dance that sketches a narrative with movement. Choreographers Twyla Tharp and Bill T. Jones “are two of my role models in that they use dance to tell great stories,” she said, pointing to Tharp’s choreography in “Movin’ Out” and Jones’ in “Spring Awakening.”
The members of the collective — a dozen core performers plus guests, but minus Johnson, who left the troupe and is currently performing in “A Chorus Line” at the Ordway — draw from a contemporary movement vocabulary that includes breaking, popping and waacking, a hip-hop style marked by fluid and reticulated arm movements.
Selmer, 28, came to dance and entertainment the way most kids do. She remembered bopping in the back of the car to Mariah Carey as a child, and thought: Hey, I want to sing and dance. Singing was not in the cards for her. But this daughter of a Twin Cities attorney had a facility with movement.
While she took classes at Hollywood Studio of Dance in north Minneapolis as a child, she didn’t take dance seriously until college, when she earned a BFA in dance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“I was a tomboy and I loved playing soccer and basketball,” she said.
Shapeshift’s shows reflect the themes and seasons of life, Selmer said. The title “Grey Skies Blue” nods to the company’s name and ethos, which is that everything is always changing — whether emotions or the constantly moving limbs of dancers who embody such feelings as joy or sadness.
“Gray days give way to blue ones. We go from clouds to light.”