INVITATION TO WITNESS: AN INTERVIEW WITH STEFANIE BATTEN BLAND PART TWO

Photograph courtesy Reuben Radding.

This is the second installment of a three-part interview with Stefanie Batten Bland that was conducted by Reuben Radding on March 4, 2019  at New York University in New York City. Stefanie and Reuben are both current students in the Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts program at Goddard College. All photographs in the series are by Reuben Radding. Part One of this interview was published on March 13, 2019.— editor

STEFANIE BATTEN BLAND is a Choreographic Artist & Filmmaker.
Jerome Robbins awardee, she physically interrogates contemporary and historical cultural symbolism – and the complexities of human relationships. Her intercontinental dance-theatre Company SBB, formed in 2008 in France situates their work at the intersection of installation and dance-theatre in film and live performance settings. Currently, SBB is Movement Director at The Public Theater and a Choreographer for American Ballet Theatre’s Women Movement Initiative. She lives with her family in New York City.For more info:  
companysbb.org

REUBEN RADDING is a photographer, writer, and musician based in New York City. His award-winning street and personal documentary photographs depict elusive or unlikely candid moments, and intentionally provoke unanswerable questions in the viewer’s mind.  Radding’s work has been exhibited in galleries around the world, and in publications like The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Hamburger Eyes, Time Out, Hyperallergic, Downbeat and others. His work has also been featured at the Miami Street Photography Festival, The Center for Fine Art Photography, and the Focus on the Story Festival. His first book of photographs, Apparitions, was published in 2013. Radding has been an instructor with the New York Institute of Photography since 2013, and has taught workshops or lectured at New York University, The School of Creative and Performing Arts,  Marble Hill Camera Club, and others. Since 2017 he has offered a series of street photography workshops from his Brooklyn studio. He graduates from Goddard College with an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts in July 2019.

Photograph courtesy Reuben Radding.

RR: I was remembering something that I heard the musician William Parker say once, about the tradition of classical art music and how going to Carnegie Hall, and all that, was that you’re supposedly going to this very elevated experience, right? This is the “legit” world. But there’s no reason you couldn’t go to see the opera and then go back to annihilating groups of people in your job, and being a horrible, immoral person. You could totally live that way. And he said that his experience in the avant garde was you didn’t really have that option because what you’re experiencing is essentially transformational. So you couldn’t go out to see Cecil Taylor play and then go back to oppressing entire communities or something…

SBB: Yeah! Yeah! Yeah yeah yeah yeah!

RR: …there would be no way to live and be that, and so I was thinking about the sort of transformational aspect…

SBB: I love that you just brought that word up…

RR: …of breaking down the hierarchy, because this is something that I am really interested in: trying to find a way out of those constructs. And, I think some people think it’s solely about the physical relationship of, like, the red plush seats and the stage, vs making things that are site-specific, or immersive, or so on, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s what you just talked about: the invitation and…

SBB: It’s value! I think it goes back to value. Transformation in my world hits right at The Person again. But I’ll use materials to get to that. So here, I’ll harken back to installation again. What I love about successful installation art is [reaches for coffee cup on desk] that even if I don’t touch the cup the identity of the cup is marvelous. I’m enjoying the cup it’s great as it is. Now, let’s say I can head on in there [tilts cup diagonally] and I realize that because of the way it was laying, or standing, or something, I realize that it needed my help. So now it just become something that I could take care of. So now it’s something that has meaning to me. It’s going to turn into my register as something I can take care of. Well, what else can I take care of? I take care of my plants, I take care of…

Photograph courtesy Reuben Radding.

RR: Right, right.

SBB: So we’re going to go into this whole offshoot list of things that have value to us as a person. And, we can get lost when we’re looking at performers! Thanks to their act of performing we might sometimes lose touch with our imagination of care, and that we can care, that we have the capacity to care for so many things. But when we’re dealing with an object I feel that we’re able to really address, and see, and feel, even clearer because it is inanimate and it’s up to you to bring it to life, and, to transition and transform it into something that you, as a spectator, either care for, have a dislike for or what-have-you. And to me, that act, as well as the invitation, this goes into transformation of––you know just for an hour, or two, or three hours––it completely is changing your posture, your behavior, your breathing, the way you see other people, the ways you engage in the world. Yeah, that is the most successful art to me, it’s seeing this change in audience members, because I’m not sure they even recognize what it does to the performers. It creates this kind of um-hum between everybody, like physically, I mean that sounds… [laughs] but it does! You see it in stand-up comedians all the time. They’re probably the best example of it, because the feed is so direct and it pings back and forth. Okay, that’s a really specific description of getting at it. This is more subtle. We’re talking about people’s backs straightening, or their heads moving forward…and when everyone’s kind of doing that together, they’re all sort of engaged in this life choreography. There aren’t enough examples of that in the positive sense.

RR: It doesn’t happen when you go to see “Swan Lake.”

SBB: [laughs] I mean, yeah! You get the “ooh!” and the “ahh” and the appreciation of this very, very, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, thin, woman, thin, thin…up there, right?

RR: [laughs]

SBB: I mean, here we are: back to personhood. I mean, like, truly, is that the only swan out there? [laughs] I mean, you know, right?

RR: You’re here at NYU as a visiting artist in a ballet department, right? How are you able to bring these things that we’re talking about to a ballet context?

SBB: So, this is interesting. This Center for Ballet and the Arts is this research space. And they’re bringing in researchers and artists who are working with the idiom. I don’t normally do that. That’s really true. This happens to be a very ballet-heavy period in my life, and I’m seeing that I’m here for a really clear reason, and the way that I can best engage with the classical ballet world is, to me, going back to what I find [is] the most exciting time of it, when it was leaving Italy, when it was like commedia Del Arte,

carnival, the pantomime theater. Things were either going towards opera in Italy, or, there was this really wild escape that occurred with Catherine de’ Medici, when she moved into France, and she married Henry II, and she brought this physical act with her to France. And in France it became part of this U-shaped court system––expression, dancing––but what was going on during all of that…everyone would come and get involved at the end of the ballet. So it would kind of become a ball at the end. And that’s where your deals went down. Wars were averted, because folks are chatting in their ear. I mean, forget, like, the affairs and all the dramatic…I mean, it’s all going on right then and there, all together. And I find that absolutely thrilling, cause that would make sense to me, that through the physical arts deals are drawn, land titles are passed, you know, cause finally you’re in a place where you’re allowed to get near people and you’re allowed to touch, right? And we’re at this place where people just didn’t touch, and there was so much presentation (and God knows clothes were so enormous at this point). So, that proximity is really exciting to me, and that’s something that we don’t engage with in ballet anymore, at all. So while I’m here, in this side of my mind I’m thinking of proximity, I’m thinking of all the lack of representation, and the enormous issues that ballet has had to come to terms with due to all the #meetoo, and #timesup, and all the hashtag movements––thank the gods that it finally got here––and over here, the country seems to be going through the same sensation and conflict with their enormous landmarks. I mean the fact that something that you’d have walked by your entire life––a statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle, never meant anything to you––but by virtue of them wanting to take it down, now suddenly Manhattan’s up in arms over its “midtown identity.” What do you mean, its midtown identity? You know? [laughs]

So, in this place, right now, in the Ballet Arts Center and with American Ballet Theater and cultural landmarks and monuments I sort of see this really interesting parallel going on that has to do with how close we are to things, and the closer we are to them the more I think our true feelings about them will come out, and I think there are things that we need to just let decay, and move on. It’s called evolution. And what is the current and correct version––not correct––but what’s the version that best represents who we are as a people today, [that] can manifest? Or, are there things that should just go into an institution, that should go into the Met or go into the Louvre and stay there? So what are those things? I’m using classical ballet as sort of the vehicle––the physical vehicle––to talk about these…not these ways of being, but these statues of our personality and do they still represent us, or do they not? And so–me being me–a year ago I was speaking with our dear friend Conrad [Quesen, G5, artist, theater designer], and was telling him that I was really interested in how we see things, and would there be a way, or can he think of a way, when I’m telling him these ideas, like zoos, and how we look at people…could he help me find a way to…not voyeuristically look at things, but to see things on display. So, if you took a snow globe, like, what would today’s snow globe look like? Okay, so right now I’m converging all of these things together here. He started working on these inflatables that you can put people inside of, right? And inside of these they’ve gotten bigger over time, and he’s gone in his own direction with them, and our idea has not really gotten to be played around with yet, but it’s always been waiting for the right moment which seems to finally be here. Because in the studio in this building here that we all physically work in…is finally the play space where I think you can house a viewer and the viewee in the same space, and I’m just really curious what our sensations are if something that we made ourselves starts to fall apart.  

So, we’re going to go into one of these spaces, and what I love about it is that in his inflatables everyone on the outside sees as well. That’s kind of what I feel everyone needs to do right now is just see. Do we really need to see the confederate flag far away, nearby, to have a particular sensation? Maybe, maybe not. Does someone really need to see someone wrapped up like a burrito in the American flag and have their sensations near, far, does it change? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t! I don’t know. If you were to watch the amazing, fearless statue of that little fearless girl that was down in front of the bull at Wall Street, close up, what do you feel with that? And these enormous statues that are so high…and we are obliged to pay homage to it by looking up first, and it’s only with distance does it kind of level out and comes into your own height, which is a place of equality, right? So, in these bubbles, with ballet vernacular, and with people––people are going to go inside, and they’re going to build a monument that means something to them. And, maybe it’s a Statue of Liberty, I mean, who know what people are going to come up with? And then I’m just really curious as the performer who by this time will have four or five ways of distorting or enhancing this statue that they’re modeled as, we’ll go through these different transformations, in front of the maker. And that’s the experience!

I mean, it’s not going to cure anything, but I think it will help us. It’s always great to be able to have feelings and to feel feelings and to be aware of them. That’s what I’m doing here. I’m looking at big classical monuments…and then hopefully that will get sold to the Park [Avenue] Armory…and then we’ll do that for days…see lots of people walking into these pods all over the place. And then, every now and then, the pod just…deflates. Oh, God, it’s like, I can’t wait!

Photograph courtesy Reuben Radding.

RR: I was really blown away by your workshop, The Blinds, at our [MFAIA S19] residency. Partly, I was unsure of the line between common dance/improv practices and your own innovations, but, I was really amazed by the values that were lived out in that experience. It seemed to be about simultaneously creating a space  for people to explore their own impulses, like everyone had initiative available to them, but they also had a role in supporting and protecting each other and the result felt immensely joyful and really created a visual language (not unlike what I see in your works). Is this how you develop physical language for your company’s pieces? With this kind of process?

SBB: Yeah, sometimes! I mean, honestly I’ll often use The Blinds more in workshop scenarios as icebreakers or ways to bring a whole group together before we start the work of a piece, but with Eve’s Song at the Public, we used this as a way to radically break our normal relationship with objects. Like, I know I have the capacity to take the cup, like this, to bring it to my mouth. Well, if my eyes are closed I’m not sure where that [cup] is going to be, and with whatever line is being said, [closes eyes, reaches for coffee cup] I might––I just made it move, and that could theatrically maybe help us along in our storytelling in a way that we hadn’t thought of. So with text is a lot of––it allows me to render something a little more surreal or abstract with the text. Physically it can do the same thing, actually, because often times we’ll use this, a very small bit of it, in duets or in partnerings when we’re getting stuck. Our sight is so involved with creating whatever it is we need to be getting done that we forget if we actually pull the blinds down, we’ll be hearing and using our other sensations that much more–we will probably come up with patterning that we would never have thought of with our eyes open, because visually it would not stimulate us. And, the moment that occurs you’re just open to opportunity, and being open, indeed––doesn’t take away your initiative or anything of the sort. To me it’s like, are we staying on script? It’s always been about the story. And if we are, then it’s just a great way to get us out of our “writer’s block.”

RR: Or maybe out of our preconceptions about what would be an acceptable expression?

SBB: That’s right! Absolutely.

RR: What I really noticed was that, thinking about the way you’re explaining it now, combined with what I experienced and photographed that day…it was a way to access a certain kind of gestural or physical language that those individuals all had in them, but that they wouldn’t have necessarily gone there outside of that process. I’m not sure I’m  explaining myself well!

SBB: No, I mean, but it’s murky! That’s the thing. It’s murky land because where physical gesture and––especially with text, you know clarity in text––they come head to head when you’re suddenly saying that, “oh, it’s not a cup. I’m going to ask you to treat it like a cat.” Well, if I’m visually looking at it I might immediately go into this [pets coffee cup]. So, again, a very clear pantomimed action, right?

RR: Right.

SBB: But, if I can just pull my blinds down, [closes eyes and reaches out] first I’m probably just going to look for it. Like, I know memory-wise where it is, you know, and then I just want to make sure I get the right side of it, whatever that means, okay great I just did this now [turns cup to reach handle]

RR: Now you’re looking for features of it to know how to relate to it, like where’s the handle on the cup?

SBB: It tells us everything we need to know, which is why it’s so genius that it’s there for these hot beverages! So, you know, I love The Blinds for pro’s, because A: we don’t have much time to play anymore, right, we’ve got to make these products and things have deadlines, and this can invite in a way to access that kind of play space while still actually serving the greater goal. And then, in workshop scenarios, oh forget it, it’s just like bonkers yummy, because you can just be, and you’ve got support people around you, you’ve got stimulation around you, and everyone has a very important part to play, depending on where they are in the cycle of it. It’s wonderful. I mean, it always feels like this, when it’s over, it’s like you’re actually just beginning to learn how to speak it, and you’re really ready now for like the four more hours, or the two more days, you know? It creates a wonderful hum between everyone. Community.

Part Three

•••

The Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts (MFAIA) program at Goddard College is a unique graduate experience at the intersection of contemporary art practice and Goddard’s landmark method of low-residency, human-centered learning and teaching. Information about Admissions to the program is available at goddard.edu

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