Simpson/Stulberg Collababorations

April 28, “Still Life No. 7”

Choreography by: Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

Some weeks ago, I had the honor of not only watching Still Life No. 7 but also moderating a post-show discussion about audience engagement for Simpson and Stulberg. Yes, I am behind; I call it slow blogging.

As I took my seat in a studio at Margret Jenkins Dance Lab, I gazed at the stage to take in the program notes that were projected on the wall. They included the standard information about the music, dancers, costumes, etc. I knew Simpson and Stulberg were trying a new format, but I didn’t know how much information they decided to provide. After the standard preliminaries, they offered additional notes: “Information and opinions about frequently asked questions you may or may not want to know before watching this dance,” which was followed by a series of questions (and answers):

What is a Still Life Dance?

What painting did you choose?

Is it good?

What does the dance mean?

No, tell me how to look at it. How should I watch this dance?

I don’t want to say anything stupid in the post-show discussion. Please help.

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Already, Stulberg and Simpson were engaging with their audience. I admit, most of the time when I sit down to a performance on my own I comb the program, check my phone, etc. Having the program notes “live” so to speak encouraged me to be in the space with others more; I even had a lovely chat with the person sitting next to me. The streaming questions and their answers suggested that we (the audience) watch Still Life No. 7 with curiosity and by “letting the dance fall on [us].”

Looking back at the scribbles in my notebook, several threads emerged. I’ve translated them here in a form that captures how Stil Life No. 7 unfolded for me. They are not necessarily linear, but points of contact and represent how the dance fell on me.

  • Bodies on the floor.
  • Light from stage left creating shadows.
  • Synchronous feet and leg rocking.
  • There was often no sound and space between movements, which allowed time for catching up or reflecting.
  • Then I noticed the sound of the costumes rubbing on the floor and then sniffs, coughing. “Yep” and “yeah” seemed to say “it’s ok,” “I get you,” or “I am with you.” Here, life breathing into the abstract.
  • The repeating verbal nonsense (purple church, tractor, Trader Joe’s) reflected how the stories in our heads can keep us from finding pauses or stillness in the everyday.
  • Coming to the piano, signing at it but not playing it.
  • The film at the end directed the gaze, directing us to see the particularities of movement, bodies, costumes.

Together, these observations reveal a dance steeped in different kinds of curiosities. Simpson and Stulberg drew us into a landscape that kept asking us to consider the stillness between light, sound, and movement and how that stillness is not empty but full of possibilities. How much light do we need to see others? To be with others? SCan it be enough to hear each other?  Stillness can connect us with each other.

The post-show discussion revealed a curious audience that was attentive to the not only the dancing on stage but also the dancing in their minds. While hesitant at first, the audience eventually warmed up and engaged very directly with Simpson and Stulberg about their work as well as how they engaged. I felt we could have talked for hours. Between the dancing and discussion, it was a full evening that challenged me to draw out the curiosities between myself, the dancers and the audience. As I made my way home, I pondered the fullness of stillness, noticing the shadows on the sidewalk, the sound of feet on the pavement, the rush of vehicles on the street, and the stories in my head.

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April 14th, “Still Life No. 8” Edge Residency 2018

Choreography by Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg

I’ve written about Simpson and Stulberg’s work for years and always look forward to a display of small quick gestures that play with sound, space, and sight that contain surprises of unusual directions, gestures, and glances. The audience on Saturday, April 14th seemed much less familiar with their work. I noticed short bursts of laughter and gasps from the audience, which encouraged me to experience “Still Life No. 8” on its own, as something new.

Simpson and Stulberg did not reveal which still life painting from the de Young Museum this movement study is based on. Instead, they wrote: “The eighth work in our series, this dance acknowledges the labor and life of the table and performers.” Multiple forms of labor were clearly articulated as the dancers kept pushing an industrial looking table (designed by Giacomo Castagnola) into different positions around the stage, locking and unlocking its wheels. As the trio of dancers worked (and danced), they kept checking in with each other with simple phrases like “yep” and “ok.” Their costumes looked like uniforms and they seemed concerned with getting “it” just right. 

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“Still Life No. 8,” Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations, Counterpulse 2018 (Photo by M.LaVigne)

The zig-zagging movements of dancers on the top, bottom, middle, and sides of the table created moments of tension and surprise. They slid across the table’s surfaces, stopping just as it seemed they might slide off the edge. When the table was turned on its side, they used the sides as walls or screens, moving in and out of them to create a dynamic tableau. The first and last sections had no music, which amplified the labor of the body on, off, and with the table as well as the verbal recognition of that labor between the dancers. The only part with music was the middle section; it was “danced” by the table. Arletta Anderson could barely be seen underneath the table as she moved it across the stage – another nod toward the labor that goes unseen or unacknowledged.

I never quite figured out the end goal; what were the dancers working to achieve? It occurred to me that perhaps that was the point or rather question. What are we trying to achieve with all of our multiple forms of labor? What do we take for granted in those labors (like a table)? What kind of connections do we make or break while we labor?

Like “Still Life No’s 1-6,” I left the theater with a little grin. This time I was delighted by the experience of seeing a table “dance” and by the gasps and laughter from the audience. Simpson and Stulberg have a unique ability to play with incongruity that is insightful as well as humorous. “Still Life No. 8 ” found movements to show us how the unnoticed  – like a table – often get missed in the labor of living. I wonder what will be on display in “Still Life No. 7” April 28th and 29th? Come join me to find out!