Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation
Senior Curatorial Director Eva Yaa Asantewaa dreamed this series of interviews, Artists Reach Out: reflections in a time of isolation, out of grief for her work both as a documenting arts writer and curator of live performance.
“In this time of social distancing, we are called to responsibly do all we can to safeguard ourselves and our neighbors. It is, literally, a matter of life and death.
But there’s no distancing around what we still can share with one another—our experiences, thoughts, wisdom, humor, hearts and spirit. In some ways, there are more opportunities to do so as we pull back from everyday busyness out in the world and have time to honor the call of our inner lives.
So, let me introduce you to some artists I find interesting. I’m glad they’re part of our beautiful community, and I’m eager to engage with them again (or for the first time) in years to come.” – Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Senior Curatorial Director
This interview features Stefanie Batten Bland, Artistic Director of Company SBB, and 2019 Gibney Company Choreographer.
Stefanie Batten Bland is a Jerome Robbins awardee whose interdisciplinary practice interrogates contemporary and historical culture. She situates her work at the intersection of installation and dance-theatre. Based in New York City since 2011, she founded Company SBB in France while head choreographer at the Paris Opera Comique. SBB and her collaborating artists are in permanent residence at University Settlement, and the Company is regularly produced by La MaMa Experimental Theater, which co-presented her latest work, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, with FIAF’s 2019 Crossing the Line Festival. She has been commissioned by Ailey II, Gina Gibney Dance, Spoleto Festival Italy, Baryshnikov Arts Center, Rire Woodbury, Singapore Frontier Danceland, Brooklyn Museum and others globally. SBB directs dance cinema films that have been shown internationally and creates for fashion and lifestyle partners including Louis Vuitton, VanCleef & Arpels and Hermes. Known for her unique movement aesthetic, she served as movement director for Eve’s Song at the Public Theater (Forbes 2018 Best Theatre List). She is choreographer for American Ballet Theatre’s inaugural Women’s Movement Initiative, creator of performance installation at the EU for the United Nations, highlighting the role the performing arts play in climate change awareness, and choreographed for Juilliard New Dances. SBB is a 2019 fellow for New York University’s Center for the Ballet Arts, has been featured in global media including The New York Times, Dance Europe Magazine, Brooklyn Rail, Marie Claire, TV 5 Monde and Dance Teacher Magazine. She received her MFA in interdisciplinary arts from Goddard College and lives in SoHo with her family, where she grew up as the daughter of artists. www.companysbb.org
I have transitioned radically from being a modern working woman to a full-time mom/schoolteacher/day care center. I frankly don’t even think of art making right now. I’m honestly thinking about how can I best survive with my family and make it to the other side of this alive. It was too risky to travel to my mother’s home, and I do not own a second residence. Thus we are home in NYC. My family lives in a 30-story building that depends on people to run it on a daily basis. The stress in making sure my kiddos and partner are developing, not stressing and being able to thrive is all that concerns me, frankly. I have found occasionally that insta live classes have been wonderful. I’ve been able to participate in two. I’m focusing my energies on finding transitional funds for my artists so as to try and offer help as they see their monies evaporate. My board and supporters are coming to bat for us and this I deeply appreciate.
Do you have a current or planned project whose progress is affected by the pandemic?
Yes, we were due to begin this week in rehearsals for our tour to the Tucker Boatwright festival in Richmond VA. Afterwards, we were to perform in the Park Armory’s 100 Years/100 Women initiative as well the Five Moons Dance Festival at University of Oklahoma’s School of Dance.
Briefly, tell me about how you got involved in the arts and in your particular practice.
The arts and me. ahhhhhh. This is a life story actually. I’m a hand-me-down artist. Daughter of a composer and writer of a Soho loft of the 80’s, so creativity, making and being are all one thing for me. In the sense that I knew performance would be how I would live my life in this world. It has been my whole life. Either post-modern dance, musical theatre, tanz-theatre, dance-theatre, physical theatre, immersive theatre. I’m blessed and lucky as I’ve only had a plan A and I’ve been able to follow that.
In a more specific way, what are you practicing?
Currently survival. I dream, I expose my kids to our now empty neighborhood (the same one I was gentrified out of) and answer mortality questions related to facial costumes (masks). Otherwise, I am a choreographer and movement director. I founded and am artistic director of Company SBB. We are a French/American Dance Theatre company based in New York City.
And what are you envisioning?
Life after COVID-19. That access to space, the right to enter and exit spaces and places is a freedom I cherish and to share that with people I love is what makes me happy and whole. Much of my work looks at space and materials as ways to tell stories. I feel space becomes an expressive performance partner. It evolves as we do, with it and within it.
How does your practice and your visioning align with what you most care about? How does your practice function within the world we have now?
You know, right now I’m looking at how we find the ME inside of the monumental. I’m working within the realms of classical ballet—American Ballet Theatre—to be specific within their Women’s Movement Initiative. Looking at ballet as a living monument—one that can and does transform physically. With my own company, I am looking at how we use the actions of memorialization to correct histories about our past. Specifically, I’m looking at African American Heritage trails and monuments that are actively including voices and showing participation of ancestors who helped make this country, financially-and culturally-speaking. I’m thrilled that I can bring trails, people of the past and people of now together within the same space through performance. How amazing/scary that is is occurring now. During this monumental moment in the world. When we see yet again who is able to seek treatment, who is not and to whom those are connected historically who now don’t have access.
But really, right right now? I most care about my darling family and sustainability for my organization. Specifically, how I can better support my team? The artists that I have the honor to work and collaborate with deserve more certainty that I can currently offer them. I don’t follow a 52-week model. A project model has always best supported our company’s creations. It allows it to live as long as it is meant to and allows me the freedom to create when I am moved to–not obliged to—by our not-for-profit granting system. This crisis has nestled me in deep reflection—when I’m able to carve out alone time, that is.
In this critical moment, I am without means to protect those whom I love and create with. Thus I am determined to remove myself from my company budget line. By doing this, we will have an emergency supply that will always be there for and when we need a cushion. This will enable me to better tell stories that tackle how and why we treat one another the way we do.
As people in a Western civilization, in a post-colonial culture, as a species, we need to listen better. I am hearing the planet right now. She needs us to listen to her; She wants a lot of us gone. GONE. Honestly I don’t blame her. We treat this planet awfully, and we treat one another awfully. If anything, telling stories letting the griot in me out and enabling communication around what and who we are as a people is what I see as the only way to continue once on the other side of this moment in time. I plan to make it through, and I plan to devote my work to making us see how precious and fragile our lives are.
To read all of Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s Artists Reach Out interviews, visit infinitebody.blogspot.com.
Photo by Mark Alan Lovewell.