How a local artist turned her many passions into a world-class art experience on the Eastern Shore
Renata Sheppard weaves a story when she dances. She rolls across the floor drawing circles with her arms, her long brown hair sweeping the ground behind her. She commands the room as she glides and turns, and looks for all the world like this is her one true calling.
But to understand Sheppard is to know that limits do not define her and one expression of art could never contain her.
Born in Italy, raised on the Eastern Shore, Sheppard was from an early age drawn almost equally to the worlds of dance and theater, science and technology. She passed on medical school to pursue dance.
That career took her around the world, but along the way she discovered that she did not need to separate her passions, that in fact she could create experimental, thought-provoking works by intentionally blurring the lines between them.
The epiphany eventually led Sheppard, now 35, to create Experimental Film Virginia, an annual event that draws dozens of artists, from various disciplines, to Cape Charles to collaborate on short dance films inspired by the people and places of the Eastern Shore.
For two weeks each summer, the beach town of about 1,000 people transforms as dancers and filmmakers arrive from around the globe: New York, Chicago, Spain, Lebanon. Past participants and special guests have included Italian director Davide Ferrario, Israeli directors Adi Halfin and Roman Linetsky, and Academy Award-winning actor Chris Cooper.
The event, which celebrated its fifth anniversary in July, culminates with the debut of about a dozen films, a premiere that’s become so popular hundreds attend.
The official motto is “Small Town. Big Art.” Seems fitting. Mary Ann Roehm, a community liaison for Experimental Film Virginia, says Sheppard’s event invigorates the town. “She is so driven and so passionate about what she’s doing,” Roehm says.
But for Sheppard, it just seemed natural. “I feel called to push the boundaries of the rules,” she says.
Sheppard comes from a family of artists. Her siblings played instruments, her grandmother was an actress and her mother runs a Cape Charles gallery.
She began dancing at age 3, but her career in the arts almost didn’t happen. She was pre-med at The College of William & Mary and felt she was supposed to choose just one path. “I was getting ready to say ‘I used to be a dancer,’ ” she says.
She decided to seek her master of fine arts as an experiment. She took her acceptance into the program as a sign.
Lorraine Graves, one of her former ballet teachers, was thrilled to see her return to dance. Beyond her strong technique, Sheppard has a sincere, honest spirit that shines through when she performs, Graves says. “You can’t teach that,” she says.
Graves, a Norfolk native and former principal dancer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, says Sheppard has created art that can’t be compared to anything else. “She has a vision, and her vision is unique,” she says. “And it has a place and a purpose.”
Sheppard says she’s driven by curiosity. To her, dance has a life beyond the stage.
She likes to incorporate other ingredients – visual art, material, light – into her works. She even builds cloudlike sculptures out of paper and uses them in her choreography. “I want to connect things,” she says. “I see these pieces of a puzzle, and I want to put them together and see what happens.”
In graduate school at the University of Illinois, she collaborated with the computer science department to use virtual reality technology as performance art. They made videos that create an illusion of dancers performing together, even though they were recorded in separate locations. Sheppard says the pieces raised questions about the body and touch, and what it means to be present.
“Yes, dance is beautiful,” she says, “but I want to get people interested in movement on a deeper level than just seeing an aesthetic performance.”
A Fulbright scholar and Henry Luce fellow, Sheppard has lived in Europe and Asia. She worked in Italy at the Allied Sciences Arts Lab and taught at the Taipei National University of the Arts and the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
But wherever she went, her heart remained on the Eastern Shore. And the more she traveled, the more she wanted to return.
“Because it’s a place that’s so grounded and natural and simply beautiful, I think that’s why I felt like I could push myself so far to literally go to the other side of the world,” she says. “Because I knew this was always the place I came back to.”
Sheppard saw something else in the Shore, too: a place where artists could escape busy city life, nurture their craft and find inspiration to create something new. “Everywhere you turn around here is a movie set,” she says.
Today, she splits her time between Italy and the Eastern Shore, where she lives at her family home with her parents.
A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts made the first two years of her festival possible. Since then, funding has come from an array of sources, including private sponsors, cultural organizations and arts associations.
Today the program is run through Sheppard’s nonprofit, Global Exchange Arts Roundtable. She serves as artistic director and manages just about everything – from grant writing to securing plane tickets for dancers.
When the artists arrive, they hop on golf carts with members of the Cape Charles Historical Society and scout locations from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to barns, fields, storefronts, private homes and dilapidated buildings. They spend the first week casting and writing scripts. The second week, they shoot, edit and debut. The films generally run three to five minutes long.
Filmmaker Josephine Decker says the collaboration at Experimental Film Virginia allowed her to create a much better piece than if she’d tried to produce it on her own. The short timeline forced her to trust her instincts, which felt liberating. Her 2015 film featured audio interviews of men talking about their lives post-prison. She asked the dancers to listen and interpret. Decker later presented the film to critical acclaim at South by Southwest.
Sheppard, she says, has built something special. The festival gives filmmakers all the resources they could want – locations, costumes, high-caliber performers.
“It’s so rare to have so much support and permission to do what you want,” Decker says. “I really don’t know of any residencies like it.”
Roehm, the community liaison, says the festival adds another layer of artistic culture to Cape Charles, a town known historically for the railroad and its farmers and watermen. “With Renata focusing her attention here, that takes it to another level.”