“Perhaps We Wrong Them,” a choreographed dance film that visually explores powerful themes relating to childhood trauma and its lingering effects on a survivor's everyday adult life, won Screendance Short of the Year at the 2023 Independent Shorts Awards International Film Festival in Los Angeles. The film was conceived and produced by 2015 NMU theater alumnus John Scheibe of Yonder Studio in Marquette and stars Karina Johnson, NMU director of dance and assistant professor. Alumna Kasey Scheibe served as production manager and Riley Owen was choreographer. All four walked the red carpet at the September awards ceremony.
“It was an exciting, almost out-of-body experience to hear my name called as the winner because there are thousands of submissions to the festival every year,” said John Scheibe. “At the base layer, the film is a story about how trauma evolves in a person over time. That felt like something worth telling with the current climate in this country. I thought I could put a dancer in a school setting and create an emotionally powerful piece that would sit in people's stomachs for a period after they viewed it. It was my direction, but I left it ambiguous enough so that people could connect with it in different ways, and they have. The response has been amazing.”
The concept began with the music. Scheibe said he was editing videos for another assignment and sifting through his digital library for a musical backdrop when he came across one song and the idea “just spilled out.” He envisioned a tragic dance based on a specific movement and rooted in a fictitious school shooting event. Scheibe asked Owen if she would choreograph and then approached Johnson to portray the main character, whose journey and movement is suggestive of the past violence endured. However, no aggression is depicted in the film.
Scheibe had met Johnson previously during an interview and photo shoot related to yet another of her creative talents: painting acrylics-on-canvas abstracts inspired by Marquette's natural surroundings. In fact, a temporary installation of her work is on display in the new WellBeing Center at NMU. Scheibe had never seen Johnson dance and she had never acted before, yet he trusted her to do both for the film.
“I loved his vision; it was well thought out and artistic,” Johnson said. “And there was no question we would work well together. After we rehearsed the choreography in the NMU studio, no location had been secured yet for filming. John was directing me through without my knowing what was going to happen exactly, what was around me or how it would look. I was nervous. But when we ran it for the first time with the powerful music, I felt so in the moment. Everything faded away and I was terrified. As soon as we finished, we all started balling.”
Once the cast and crew were on location at both a school-like setting and a café, Johnson said Hanna Numinen—a former NMU student and veteran of many theater productions—countered the serious subject matter by keeping the mood light between takes with jokes and tap dance battles.
“She was great at putting this novice at ease,” Johnson said. “Then John would say ‘Action' and I had to suddenly morph into a trauma-ridden adult. The film premiered this summer at NMU's North Coast Dance Festival. John also posted it on the Yonder Studio Instagram account and it got shared a bunch. I've heard from others that it makes them uneasy and keeps them thinking about the world. But it's not an in-your-face message; it's vague enough that it's open to personal interpretation. And some said seeing it on the big screen at Forest Roberts Theatre rather than a phone was more impactful and took their breath away.”
This was Scheibe's first dance film. He said his only prior comparable experience was in high school, when he and close friends would make YouTube videos. They would devise a story on the spot, edit scenes together to tell a continuous story, then share the completed product with their impressed classmates.
After graduating from Northern, Scheibe moved to New York City to act in musical theater productions. He made a “very brief” appearance on an episode of “Manifest”—his first time on a professional filming set—and then COVID-19 disrupted everything and he returned to the U.P.
Yonder Studio made its debut via a public announcement in February 2022. Scheibe's first project, with fellow alumnus Dan Korhonen, was The Iron Town. The documentary delves into Negaunee's mining history, current issues, and the key role that outdoor recreation is playing in guiding the city's future. It was screened at Marquette's Fresh Coast Film Festival.
“Halfway through editing that project, I started to contemplate what was next for the studio,” Scheibe recalled “I really wanted to put out something that was a strong creative step forward because Marquette has a creative community that's game for anything. There's a lot of talent and potential to draw from.
“The filmmaking industry in the U.P. tends to revolve around seasonal scenery and lots of outdoor activities that celebrate our portion of the state. It's great to highlight that, but my goal is to develop more script-driven, fully produced cinematic short films that emphasize character development with actors and use the U.P. as a backdrop rather than the singular focus. I was proud to represent a new approach to filmmaking in Upper Michigan at the festival in L.A.”
View the award-winning “Perhaps We Wrong Them” here.