Lauren Simpson

June 10th, “Still Life No. 6,” Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

“Still Life No. 6” premiered as part of Yerba Buena Gardens Festival ChoreoFest, an event of Bay Area contemporary dance curated by RAWdance. “Still Life No. 6” was 3rd on the program so I also saw pieces by RAWdance and dawsondancesf. Each piece was danced at a different location around Yerba Buena Gardens. I brought by 5-year old daughter and we enjoyed walking, and watching dance on sunny Saturday afternoon.

By the time we found a seat, “Still Life No. 6” had already started; Simpson and Stulberg sat on the edge of a raised block in the East Plaza of YBCA Gardens, a cellist was playing (Shanna Sordahl). Despite the typical distractions of being outside (and trying to be still) in a public space I could sense a mood; even my 5-year old could sense it as she sat watching intently for most of the 20 minute piece. As Simpson and Stulberg mentioned in a recent interview with me, this piece did stay within the same vocabulary and virtuosic style they’ve developed. The technical precision was stunning and yet there was so much more to see (and hear) about how and what we remember.

FullSizeRender (5)Because of the site specific nature of the piece and where I sat (on the ground at an angle), I really noticed the meticulous gestural movements of Simpson and Stulberg’s eyes and heads – blinking and gazing, nodding and bobbing. At times they seemed to be following something with their eyes, signaling “it’s ok”, or articulating “yes.” These modes of seeing (and speaking) seemed to acknowledge or respond to something just beyond the audience’s reach or line of sight. Simpson and Stulberg stayed on the block almost the entire time. Close to the end, they balanced on their hips right on the edges of the block. They hovered there for a while before “falling” off and running to the opposite wall where they tired to balance in handstands while reading out loud. I knew from their interview that these were obituaries published in the paper on the same day of the performance (June 10th). When they were done reading these, they moved off the wall and around the area, even moving between the audience, to read more obituaries. They even asked two audience members to join them in reading.

I strained to hear. At first it bothered me – was I missing out on something important? I even got up and tried to move closer. I paused. There is only so much we can see and hear in any given moment. So much of our lives are about straining – to hear, see, understand, comprehend, etc. We can turn up the volume, move closer, turn a page, ask a question, press rewind. But often we can’t. In these moments, what are missing? What does it matter? How much might it matter after the moment passes? “Still Life No. 6” asked us to pause and consider how we see and hear any given moment. Remembering, whether the steps of a dance or the details of a life already past, is part of how we are in the world. I left wondering that maybe we should pause more so that we pay closer attention to how we listen or see. 

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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!

April 25th, University of San Francisco Dance Ensemble Spring 2015 Concert

Choreographed by University of San Francisco Faculty (with Guest Artists Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg)

I got to see Still Life for Two No. 2 again – such fun, repeat

Student shows back-to-back.  It was great to see these two shows so close together (I am a geek and dance nerd for sure).  I have learned to appreciate the spring dance concert at USF, and it’s gotten better over the years.  It is usually a short program with a wide variety of dance (ballet, hip hop, contemporary, African), and the dancers dance their hearts out it.  This year, Naby Bangoura, D Montalvo, Eli Nelson, and Jennifer Polyocan presented dances.  The dancers may not have same level of technical skill as the Berkeley students and it may show, but their commitment to the performance, to the stage is just as strong. For example, Kusan-Hsuan Lee danced the solo variation from Esmeralda with such delight that I couldn’t help but giggle.  She didn’t have the best technique (and her costume was terrible), but she took command of the stage and didn’t let go.  It was a joy to watch, truly.  

April 11th, “Pilot 65: Cruising Altitude”

Choreography by many

There were six pieces by six different choreographers and I wrote about everyone – it was a little exhausting.

Bush of Ghosts: The Back of Beyond, Marika Brussel

Ballet recital

Morning Poems, Sebastian Grubb

Better than the first, but very self-absorbed

The Great Discovery of Self & Selfie, Emma Crane Jaster with Marie Walburg-Plouviez

A little too long, but so sweet and fun.  I can’t wait to check out the film they were working on during the performance.  It was a delight to watch.

Beckon, detour dance

I must confess a little bias here – I know the choreographers and some of the dancers.  But it was smart (much smarter than the last piece I saw of theirs last year at the USF Dance Concert).  It was nuanced and playful – it spoke.  This is the kind of the dance that matters (to me).  This dance attempted to be part of a larger conversation about relationships, communication, and stereotypes.

Still Life for Two #2, Laura Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

The technical precision was stunning.  They never really left the floor after they slid down from the wall (still life set in motion).  The music was perfect (composed for the piece).  I really just wanted to see this again and again.  It didn’t speak, but it did demonstrate the beauty of technical precision.  And sometimes that is enough and just what you need from a dance.  One last point, I could see myself in this piece – I could see myself moving in this way; yes, I still miss performing.

Sensitive Pleasures, Esmeralda Kundanis

Laughter, absurdity, flash photography.  This dance also spoke with a growing, relentless ridiculousness about fashion/style, and the need to stay “one step ahead” and be better than the next.  The end was a little of a let-down (how do you end an endless cycle?).  Sure it was funny, but by the end I had a little knot in my stomach.  There was some truth happening here and the truth these days seems a little too much to bear.  Does it really matter when wealth inequality is wrecking havoc all over the nation?  When will enough be enough?  Will we ever see a point where we can start caring for people as people?

This was a fun evening of dance (so glad it got better in the 2nd ½).  I like what the ODC is cultivating with these programs.