June 2nd, “Still Life No. 6”: A Conversation with Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

Simpson and Stulberg will perform a new piece, “Still Life No. 6,” the newest installment in their Still Life series on Saturday June 10th, 1pm at Yerba Buena Gardens – day 2 of the Yerba Buena ChoreoFest. I had the pleasure of catching a bit of their rehearsal before we went to the SFMOMA for a conversation about their new piece. We talked about their process for making “Still Life No. 6,” the value of technique, and how dance can be a response to living in (and with) a Trump America.

ML: As “Still Life No. 6” is a continuation of  your series, is it inspired by a still life (painting) like your other pieces?

Lauren: We wanted to develop some of the ideas we’ve been exploring in the still life series, but we also wanted to shift gears a little bit so we chose a still life installation instead of a painting.

Jenny: The installation “Still Life No. 6” is based on is “Plegaria Muda” by Doris Salcedo, which was on display here at SFMOMA. We walked into Salcedo’s exhibit and were both drawn to Salcedo’s piece: a room filled with tables stacked on top of each other in pairs with dirt in between them and bits of grass growing on top.

Lauren: We didn’t do a lot of research about “Plegaria Muda,” but we read the artist statement, and it explained that each of these double tables represents a grave site of someone that was killed as result of L.A. gang violence, which gave us new ways for us think about still life as a concept and practice.

ML: Does “Still Life No. 6” mark a shift in your work?

Lauren: Yes, I think it does. We’ve taken more time with this piece, which we started in January, partly because we have two residencies. One at Shawl-Anderson Dance and the other with Margaret Jenkins’  CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange). This has given us more breathing room. In the past, we rehearsed everyday leading up to a performance. This time it’s different. We’re not in rehearsals everyday so our bodies remember differently, which allows more opportunity for new ideas to emerge. And because we’ve been commuting together from SF to Berkeley we talk less about the work and more about what’s been going on in the world.

Jenny: So on the surface, “Still Life No. 6” is not a big departure (same movement style), but it is the first piece we speak in and it’s site-specific, an installation. It’s an entryway into seeing where else our work can go.

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ML: Do you think your technique or movement structures are responsive to the state a world that is living in and with a Trump presidency?

Lauren: I think that in our artistic process we expend a lot of energy stringing together meaningless gestures and movements, refine them, craft them into an energetic arc, and practice doing them with a deep listening. It’s a way for us to focus our energy in a productive way, but some sort of low impact, peaceful and likely inconsequential way. What we make is no antidote to Trump, but how we make it certainly feels that way, to me at least in those long hours in the studio.

Jenny: None of the pieces we’ve made thus far have been intentionally imbued with any emotional undertones or subtext as we approach our work from a place of form and compositional elements. For this piece, however, we were interested in coming from a place of emotion or reaction to the state of world while still staying within the same movement vocabulary and virtuosic style we’ve developed. We’re obviously not changing the world with this piece, but this process has been a nice way to turn off, but also turn on.

ML: Given that, is there anything you want the audience to know about “Still Life No. 6”?

Lauren: We started to read obituaries, and noticed their form and tone, how they encapsulate a life. While driving to rehearsals we’ve talked about the unnecessary deaths we hear about, and then turn off, and get on with our day. So we decided to try and incorporate some of that into the piece. Toward the end of this work we read obituaries from that day out loud. For us, this is a kind of prayer. We are playing around with this idea and are not sure how it will manifest yet.

Jenny: I think we are reading these obituaries to call the audience to stop, notice, and listen. It’s a hard balance; you want to give full attention to news about lives that are lost, but you can’t all the time because it can be too overwhelming. With the stillness that we continue to put into our pieces we are trying to call attention to those aspects that we don’t normally give time or attention to.

Lauren: When a choreographer makes the same dance over and over again, they often get criticized for it. Visual artists, however, can make a series of the same thing over and over again and it’s ok. A series is a way to learn about what you’re doing. It’s worth it to us to keep doing whatever it is in this small gestural world if we keep figuring out what it is and “x.” The “and” is what we are trying to figure out. How does our talking and running around the space that we do in “Still Life No. 6” speak to our small gestural material?  

I look forward to talking with Lauren and Jenny after their June 10th performance; check back at here for more!

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