Never Break Character: The Art of Shanna Lim

Performing artist Shanna Lim often doesn’t say a word when she works. The silence is intentional. “Words don’t always communicate the emotional aspect,” she explains. Instead, she uses dance as a means of expression, in combination with her interactions with her collaborators and her audience. “Two of the ways that I connect with people are through touch and through the eyes,” she notes.

Shanna performing “Dream Trip” in 2015. Photos by Jeffrey Morris.

Some of Shanna’s performances are at street level — sometimes spanning a few city blocks — and have many moving parts. She collaborates with musicians and dancers, and audience participation is important to her pieces. With a look, or by holding out her hand, she gets the consent of audience members to join in the fun — and sometimes to become part of the work. In this video from a 2015 performance at Art All Night, watch (at 2:11) how she extends invitations to audience members. [Video by Daryl Curry.]

“I point at them like I’m saying, ‘Take me there!'” From experience, she can usually identify people who will allow her into their space, although some don’t come along easily. There are people who interact with her out of a sense of shock at being invited to participate. As she explains, “Some will have a look on their face that says, ‘What the hell am I doing?'” When working with audience members, she strives to find a connection point — she puts out her hand, positions them, and changes their pose, and feels when she her “volunteers” are in alignment. Most of the time this works, though there are exceptions: “Things don’t align when someone is drunk — they become too crazy.” Still, despite the occasional drunk or heckler, Shanna never breaks character.

Shanna performing “This Is For You” at Art All Night in 2018

In performance, Shanna’s movements and those of her collaborators seem spontaneous and natural. This may give the impression that the dances were made up on the spot, but nothing could be further from the truth. Months before the final performance, she comes to her collaborators with an idea. She knows where she wants to perform and what emotions she wants to convey, but many of the specifics develop through collaboration. “I start with a skeleton, and work with my partners to fill in the meat,” she says. For a street level piece, she and her team walk the space together for the first time. She encourages her partners: Is there energy in a particular spot that appeals to them? Are their props on the block they can work with?

Performing “This Is For You” with Boris Willis. Photo by Rob Cannon.

Rehearsals can be tricky, as they practice in the same space they will use for the official performance. Some of the shows use the street as a stage, so during rehearsals, Shanna and her team wait for the lights to turn red before running into the road. They adapt to the space, climbing on electrical boxes or hanging from street lamps.

In order to turn around a piece in just a couple of months, Shanna tends to work with other pros: dancers and musicians with extensive experience. While professionals work with her for many reasons, a chance to be part of an adventure is a key attraction.

“How to Peel a Banana” with Juliana Ponguta at Art All Night in 2017

To find hear about upcoming performances, follow Shanna on Instagram and Facebook, and be sure to check out her website.

See more photos by Jeffrey Morris at his
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Join the Conversation


  1. I have known Shanna for years…she has an excellent eye and amazing ear. She invited me to the idea of ” Lets do something fun all day and not talk”. I am sure i broke the silence first because i did not understand the ART OF LISTENING as I do today.

    1. Thanks for your comment – her work shows such a powerful use of silence and listening.

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