Review of Stephanie Batten Bland at Baryshnikov Arts Center - for New York Live Arts Writers Workshop with Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Moving Portraits

Stefanie Batten Bland has a strong internal rhythm, and that rhythm is unapologetically slow. The second weekend of her recent concert, performed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center May 18 and 19, was so slow as to be almost a still life. The seven dancers had more going for them than a bowl of fruit does, though. The dancers skittered and sashayed with an ease that seemed to say ‘duh, of course we can also do this,’ but predominately the dance progressed at a deliberately slow pace that resonated most through a visual sensibility.

Terra Firma features Benjamin Heller’s wooden egg sculptures; they are fragile, and the dancers curled inside of them seem fragile as well, like baby birds tentatively readying to hatch. Batten Bland choreographs the dancers’ emergence from the eggs with maternal patience, allowing each new movement— a stretching, a darting through the wooden slats— to morph from one concept to another almost unnoticeably.

When dancer and prop come together in Bland’s work, and they constantly do, she takes advantage of the capacity to create something new. Faces push into suspended cloth, creating a soft imprint of their features. This same cloth can create line. Pulled taut and deftly moved to the outskirts of the stage, the swaths hanging from the ceiling anchor their multi-sailed ship. And there are feathers (such plush, downy feathers!). And there is a floor covered in trash bags, turned into a pitted, roiling sea.

One of the works, A Place of Sun, says Bland’s website, was inspired by the BP oil spill and “investigate(s) entering and exiting space…adaptation and transformation…human and nonhuman nature…during the act of discovery/recovery.” Terra Firma’s trash-bag sea and cloth sails provide a landscape for a piece about immigrating by boat, and the immigrants who took those journeys. The two works were conceptually distinct; in the choreography, immigrating and surviving disaster are both physicalized through dancers’ uplifted chest and chin; aspirations and hope project towards the audience.

The relationship between audience and performer is similarly constructed to be uplifting. At the end of Terra Firma, the egg sculptures are gently handed from dancer to audience. The bobbing rise of these awkward structures as the front row passes them up and over their heads feels transcendent. In this moment of gloriously unprovoked audience participation, the dancers care of the eggs, and our care of the fragile eggs (some of their thin slats have broken and spoke out jaggedly now) all come together. Communally working to end the dance feels like we ascend towards something important together, the ‘something’ being unimportant to specify. It is simply a feeling, like a painting may work to evoke emotion from a passerby. 

Bland’s work would not be out of place in a museum gallery show. The paintings include: a dancer carrying an egg above his head in yellowed silhouette; the bare back of long-limbed Jesse Keller, an alabaster surface amidst a crinkled landscape of oil-black trash-bags. Amongst these strong images, movement serves to transition towards a new and no less stunning pose, making the dance an almost static, visual art. And I wouldn’t mind having that painting on my living room wall.

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