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Interview with Stefanie Batten Bland about "Bienvenue" at La Mama Moves!

During May 25-28, La Mama, New York, presents Company SBB- Stefanie Batten Bland’s new work entitled  Bienvenue迎WelcomeBienvenidoأهلا بك as part of La Mama Moves! Dance festival. 

Dance and choreographic artist Stefanie Batten Bland, a Jerome Robbins Awardee, has developed her work in France for several years and now lives in New York. For her company and as guest artist for others, she creates interdisciplinary performances deeply rooted in community, enlightening the delicate threads that connect one to each other.  Her new work, Bienvenue欢迎WelcomeBienvenidoأهلا بك tells the life of neighborhoods (Lower East Side, SoHo and East Village), its history, its people, and also, graffiti walls. Stefanie answered our questions. 

Nicole Birmann Bloom : Could you tell us about your new work Bienvenue欢迎WelcomeBienvenidoأهلا بك  What inspired you to develop it, and tell us about the graffiti walls that are part of the concept of the performance?

Stefanie Batten Bland: Yes, I feel I should provide some backstory. This piece was first dreamt up in the summer/fall of 2015 moments after hearing Trump in a CNN interview speak of his goals for a wall; I saw this large wall in my mind and I saw it moving.

I was actually in France at that time working with the American dance company, Zenon, from Minneapolis at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis. I received an email from Nicky Paraiso at La MaMa inviting me to create a piece for during their 55th anniversary season for their festival La MaMa Moves!

A day later, I was contacted by David White offering me a Bessie Schonberg Fellowship and residency at The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard. I was so honored and so thrilled by the idea of working in such a creative place; I thought to myself, I need to make a piece about barriers and walls. I immediately phoned my long time collaborator, artist Benjamin Heller, my great team of dance artists, and began a new collaboration with composer Paul Damian Hogan. Our first research was out at The Yard the summer of ’16. We learned much there and I realized it would be a performance created as an arts and engagement project. 

I’m originally from a neighborhood and a city that values new walls (buildings) over old. NYC has a habit of building over buildings. As a child I was surrounded by graffiti and open lots that were commandeered by the community and transformed into gardens and that is what got my juices flowing, what if I could transform a wall’s identity. If I could repurpose it for a conversation about space and place, how exciting a physical and linguistic discussion we could be having. Not a wall that separates but one that welcomes; one that showcases the people who came to our shores and those who are still trying.

Since moving back home to NYC I’ve been fortunate enough to return to my old neighborhood. I was struck by the one big mural left: The one on the corner of Bowery and Houston. Fittingly for many months (it actually was just taken down a few weeks ago) Logan Hick’s work “Story of my Life” was up.

It featured a mass of folks on the corner of my old streets Spring and Greene and everyday I walked by it to drop my little girl off at school and as I walked by it, I always felt at home in that painting, it was home. It showed everyone, and every type. Sure these streets are no longer strewn with jersey cloth from the tee-shirt sweat factories that I would skip through in the 80’s, no more gas stations and cabbies lining up, but the streets are still full of story and heritage. I thought of the places where I went as a spectator.  Where are now the places I look for artistic enrichment for all ages? Well, they are now a little more east: University Settlement and La MaMa.

A part of my coming home was to celebrate these changing neighborhoods. I grew up in these lofts and streets watching artists take over storefronts, spray paint on the curb and walk, on walls with harnesses. My parents and so many others didn’t really see the change coming and those who didn’t buy, well, we were slowly evicted and capital letters suddenly appeared. SoHo. LES, NoHo.  These two institutions however, still stood, tall and strong and it made sense to me to create an allegiance thanks to my project to celebrate their walls.  They have served our communities for so long and in so many ways. I’ve seen shows at La MaMa for a long as I can remember. It is a place that has made me in part the contentious person I am as an adult. Their children’s and adult programming is diverse and intergenerational. The settlement house’s programs for the community create access to after school art and athletic programs that serve all ages. As I sought early progressive care for my child while performing I re-connected on a deep level with University Settlement. There, I play a double role. My daughter has been in their daycare and pre-school since 2014 and I am a 2016/17 Artist in Residency in the Performance Project.

As I envisioned this wall being made by an intergenerational group, my first demographic was to be young people at University Settlement. At four years old, children comprehend self and others through drawing the family and who they are.   

In their school, I devised an arts and education component allowing me to coalesce their early childhood experiences through a lens of independence and interdependence. Thanks to the building’s nature of daily deliveries, the children collected boxes with their teachers and maintenance employees. We worked with the children investigating family. How many are in theirs, what did they look like, what did they do together? These prompts took the form of handprints to chalk drawings to marker lines and the vast variety of expression that comes from young minds.

Now we are assembling the wall with the boxes. In a flatten canvas state, it becomes our floor, our island upon which we discover five dance artists. It unites us as land and it is as vast as a sea. In a vertical state, it is a barrier. Our piece investigates how we share space with others, and the children’s work will now be integrated into something so much bigger. They can participate in our workshops and follow us from their building to La MaMa for the world premiere. So starting with one we become many. Once at La MaMa we will add the final layer of the epidermis. The public will be invited to write its own family tree history in NYC during the performance.

Nicole Birmann Bloom: You kept strong links with France where some of your dancers live. How important is it to keep this connection with France?  What do you find in the U.S that you cannot find in France and vice versa? Is being between the two countries influence your choreographies? 

Stefanie Batten Bland: Yes France has played an integral  role in my life since a child. I know French from my father’s side which has Créole roots but that isn’t why I speak. I grew up speaking French due to my mother’s work with the Cousteau Society and my years spending time at their offices after school.  My life brought me to Europe and as I was most comfortable in France, Paris; it became my home for the next ten years. It is where I began making dance. My partner is French though we live in NYC and our child is bilingual. So my ties with France are strong, but I’ve closed down the French non for profit once I came back in 2011, it was important to me to be clear about where I was. As I worked all over Europe I would say that it isn’t what influences are in my work, rather but how I make work that is specific to being on both sides of the pond. 

Of course my time as a guest with Pina marked me fundamentally. She is the reason why I left the states and Bill T. all together. Of course the thick textured worlds of Pal Frénak and Budapest glow over me. When I think of my years of working at the Opera Comique  and the amazing people that made Joséphine directed by Jerome Savary, my time with PunchDrunk’s Sleep No More has experientially created who and what I am of course it has.

But I’ll circle back to ‘how’ as this to me is the key. What I learned in Europe and in the ever changing economic and immigrant landscape of France was how to control time. Thanks to harnessing time, one can change the value of a process and thus the product rendered. I insisted upon bringing back this knowledge with me. The value of my time, my collaborators time and thus the time and research necessary to create was/is sacred. When people feel valued, a space is created where anything can happen. This is the space in which I like to work. Of course I know what to do with a two week commission period as well as 7months or in this case over a year’s worth of creation time. I try to be flexible and hear what a piece or a place needs and bring to it what I can. France allowed me to find my worth and time and New York (to be specific) holds fire. It is a place where risk is rewarded. It is ideal for unknown relationships to blossom and for newcomers to be given chances. Outside of Jérome Savary I didn’t find that in France. It is wild to think of it: Here we were making a musical about Josephine Baker in France with a casting that was 3/4 American. Savary was a very special and controversial person and one who gave me the Opera house on a dark Monday for my own work. I had never met anyone in France like that. Back on this side now, thanks to those many years, I am able to take time and really dive into work as I wish with people I wish. This includes as much as possible the original team of Emilie Camacho and Raphäel Kaney Duverger. When we play in Europe I try to use them and bring Americans and vice versa. When put together we represent the diaspora of four continents and the combination of us together allows -- as my father would say  -- “beautiful music to be made.” 

Nicole Birmann Bloom: I have seen you working with dance students at Alvin Ailey Dance School; the feeling of “togetherness” among the students was remarkable. Could you describe your work, what fascinates you? And what is your next project?

Stefanie Batten Bland: This actually circles back to my childhood. Living in a loft space there weren’t doors to separate the spaces. I relished in the freedom of movement and the multiple identities that existed in that one space though so many people were doing so many different activities. That validity of space I now realize as a maker has drawn me to make places where performers (regardless of the topic and tasks) are empowered through process and product. I like to think of my work as dance installations. These are layered spaces where first we all share the same space together as spectator and performer. Next, regardless of subject, I work in a dance theatre world where shifting between ways of being are more important than movement phrases. By harnessing the dance heritage of movement and form and the theatrical elements of being and connecting them with either wearable art of visual environments with which we can have a participatory relationship, I get to make work that tackles any subject as well as help remind us of our inter-connectiveness as a people. 

This is extremely important to me when working with students. The Alvin Ailey Foundation which you refer to was where I was a Choreographic Laboratory Fellow. To me my role as a fellow was not to insist that these students work my way. Rather I was trying to infuse them (forgive my tea visual) with tools with which they would need in today’s market. To speak what is being spoken today requires more than a mastery of our dance techniques. I took advantage of the playtime part of the Lab process to look at working with objects that would later be referred to as props. I wanted to see through what actions do we transform them into something else. I was also aware that I wasn’t working with my group. Something unique to the states is our understanding that once you have “made “ it you will come back and share your knowledge with the academy. I wrestle with this at times but I do appreciate that I was so inspired by the companies I saw as a student. The gift of our US system is I can create while sending back down the elevator that took me so high. As bell hooks speaks to, I wanted to create an environment where the student and the choreographer/teacher were taking vulnerable risks and applauding the breakthroughs as well as the failures.  Our next project is a series of films and a sequel to Bienvenue迎WelcomeBienvenidoأهلا بك  that will take the performers and spectators into the field. “Mother of Exiles” continues upon my initial research for this current project and will allow me to promenade through specific places such as the African America Heritage Trail out on Martha’s Vineyard. I think what we find in the theatre is just the beginning. I’d like to celebrate spaces where people actually stood. Slip into their skins and share their stories.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and we will see you at La Mama in May.

Interview made in April 2017 with Nicole Birmann Bloom, Program Officer, Performing Arts

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