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The Dance Enthusiast Asks Stefanie Batten Bland About "Bienvenue欢迎WelcomeBienvenidoأهلا بك" at La MaMa Moves

 The Dance Enthusiast Asks Stefanie Batten Bland About "Bienvenue欢迎WelcomeBienvenidoأهلا بك" at La MaMa Moves
Sammi Sowerby / Follow on Instagram

By Sammi Sowerby / Follow on Instagram
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Published on May 22, 2017
Photo © JC Dhien

Transforming Walls

WHO: Company SBB
WHAT: Bienvenue欢迎WelcomeBienvenidoأهلا بك
WHERE: Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street, New York, NY
WHEN: Thursday-Sunday, May 25-28, 2017

Sammi Lim for The Dance Enthusiast: Immigration and inclusivity seem to be the central theme of your newest work. Do shed light on the motivation to premiering this work at La MaMa Moves.

Stefanie Batten Bland, Founder of Company SBB: This piece was first dreamt up in the summer 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 Schönberg Fellowship and residency at The Yard on Martha’s Vineyard. I was so honored and thrilled by the idea of working in such a creative place, I thought to myself, here is my opportunity to dive into the subject of barriers and walls. What side do we choose, what do we see and what do we miss as a result of walls being put up; but not only negative images arise with walls, they provide support and enable homes to be entered and allow safety. With all of this circling in my mind, I phoned my long time collaborator, the artist Benjamin Heller, and my great team of dance artists, to begin a new collaboration with composer Paul Damian Hogan. Our first research phase was out at The Yard the summer of ’16. We learned much there and I realized it would be a performance created in part through participation and engagement.  As I never expected 45 to be in the White House, I had no idea this piece would hold the weight and importance it now does. 

Pre K children creating paintings for Bienvenue. Photo © Paul Faber.

I’m originally from a neighborhood and a city that has expressed people’s value through what type of space they can access. As a kid 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, what an exciting 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.

When I moved back home to NYC, I was fortunate enough to return to my old neighborhood. I was struck by a big mural left on Houston and the corner of Bowery (it was actually just taken down a few weeks ago): Logan Hick’s work “Story of my Life." It featured a mass of folks on the corner of my old streets Spring and Greene, and I walked by it everyday when dropping my little girl off at school. 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 '80s, no more gas stations and cabbies lining up, but the streets are still full of stories and heritage. I thought of the places where I went as a spectator. Where are the places that I looked to 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. 

La MaMa's main building at 74A East 4th Street. Photo © The La MaMa Archive / Ellen Stewart Private Collection.

These two institutions (University Settlement and La MaMa) however, still stand tall and strong, and it made sense to me to create an allegiance to them via my project. They have served our communities for so long and in so many ways. I’ve seen shows at La MaMa for as long as I can remember. It is a place that has made me the contentious person I am as an adult. Their children’s and adult programming is diverse and intergenerational. The settlement house provides programs for the community and creates 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 with University Settlement on a deep level. 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.

The Dance Enthusiast: The title of the piece says “Welcome” in French, Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic; why these particular five languages?

Stefanie Batten Bland: These are the languages spoken at University Settlement. There are actually more including various dialects, but I went with these as they mean so much right now.

Photo © Paul Faber.

The Dance Enthusiast: A melange of visual and performing arts, Bienvenue integrates dance with artwork by Pre K children and their parents. Were they given any art direction while creating the paintings?

Stefanie Batten Bland: As I envisioned this wall being made by an intergenerational group, my first demographic was the young people at University Settlement. From the age of four onwards, children can comprehend the "self" and "others" through drawings of their family members and themselves.

I devised an arts and education component in their school, which allowed 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. Benjamin Heller and I worked with the children to investigate the families. How many members made up each family, what did they look like, and what did they do together? These prompts took the form of handprints, chalk drawings, marker lines and a vast variety of other expressions that naturally stem from young minds.

We are presently assembling the wall with the boxes. In a flattened canvas state, they've become 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 spaces 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 and circularly we are all aware of one another in a larger context. Once at La MaMa we will add the final layer of the epidermis, which will come from the audiences. Following a similar prompt as the children, adults will be invited to visually express their family history in New York City upon the wall. Benjamin is also working on a mobile wall unit that the children were allowed to see and touch during workshops. What has been so rewarding is at University Settlement we’ve been able to all work at the same time and in scale to Speyer Hall, which informs how we will move everything to La MaMa.

Photo © Sally Cohn,

The Dance Enthusiast: How many performers are there and what is the tale they are telling through their bodies? Is it sombre or hopeful?

Stefanie Batten Bland: There will be five dance artists, three background actors and one composer-performer. They each tell their tale of arriving, waiting and the circumstances that render them oppressed and free in space as well as physically. 

The Dance Enthusiast: What takeaways do you hope the audience get from the work?

Stefanie Batten Bland: As with all of my work I hope to remind us of our interconnectedness as people. 

The Dance Enthusiast: The Dance Enthusiast strongly encourages audience members to write reviews of dance post-performance; what is your take on feedback?

Stefanie Batten Bland: Of course, it is lovely to hear from spectators and that is what is so lovely about The Dance Enthusiast’s mission.

Photo © Sally Cohn.

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