In the Ring With Circus Director Shanda Sawyer

Street Start: At 14, Sawyer and her older sister began The Rom, a dance company that combined “soap-opera story lines” with Middle Eastern and Flamenco dance. “We’d dress up our friends in gypsy outfits and roll a big cushion carpet out on the sidewalk. If you’re not entertaining people on the street, they’re going to walk away. We learned how to structure shows.”

Cult Following: In college, Sawyer started a comedy dance troupe, The Rhythm Methods, in response to how serious the modern dance scene was. “We wanted to do funny, pop-culture satire,” says Sawyer. The company performed “bizarre, very funny, kind of irreverent, satirical, comedy dance shows in the nightclub setting.”

Series Work: Early in Sawyer’s career, she choreographed and danced in a TV series called “Rollergames,” which was a cross between “American Idol” and “Fear Factor,” with “eight teams of roller derby babes and a gigantic figure-eight set that had alligators in the middle of it,” says Sawyer. “There was a cheerleading team for each of the roller teams and there were also music video segments.”

Large-Scale Effort: For the last decade, Sawyer has worked extensively (choreographing at least four shows a year and a handful of music videos) with a French-Asian music company that produces an ongoing variety show called Paris By Night. “In each show there are 10 to 14 gigantic dance numbers,” Sawyer says. Each concert is filmed for DVD release.

Creating the Circus: The Felds, who own the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and consider themselves the guardians of this national treasure, hired Sawyer through her agent. “They were specifically looking for a team that had not done circus before,” explains Sawyer. (The choreographer, Carla Kama, was one of the original Fly Girls.) The objective was to “freshen up the feeling of the show, make it more relevant to today’s audience—to today’s kids,” Sawyer says, adding that one of her first ideas was to incorporate video. “It was a long process to figure out how we could do it logistically, because the show travels every week.”  An even greater challenge was introducing the video element to the animals. “We had to work very slowly to get them comfortable,” she says. “If you’re a horse galloping around headed for a fiery hurdle and you see this huge moving picture ahead of you, it’s very distracting.”

Shanda Sawyer

Title: Director/Choreographer

Hometown: San Francisco

Residence: L.A.

Training: Flamenco, Middle Eastern dance, Cunningham and Limón techniques, tap, ballet, ballroom

Education: BA in Theater Arts from Lone Mountain College in San Francisco

Choreography Highlights: Commercials for Levi’s, and music videos for Chris Rock and M.C. Hammer

Directing Highlights: 136th Edition of The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, “Extreme Makeover,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Girl”

On the Board: Sawyer is one of the founders and executive producers of The American Choreography Awards, and has directed the show twice.

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