Today we are joined by global artist, Stefanie Batten Bland, founder of Company SBB. Child of a jazz composer/producer father and writer mother, and raised in Soho, Stefanie was clearly destined for a future in the arts. She situates her work at the intersection of dance-theatre, film, and installation, with a focus on the interrogation of contemporary and historical culture. This November 1-5, Stefanie’s ‘Embarqued: Stories of Soil’ takes the stage at BAM. This new dance-theater work is an excavation of self and country, created in textiles, skin tones, labor, land, humor, and moving bodies.
Stefanie talks with us about how she got her start in the arts, founding Company SBB, her creative process, and the impetus for ‘Embarqued.’ Tickets for ‘Embarqued’ are available at https://www.bam.org/embarqued.
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Speech-to-text transcript excerpt by Assembly AI
<Stefanie Batten Bland> What we’re working on right now is such an accident. I was in a grocery store and I found a book on an African American heritage trail in Martha’s Vineyard. And I was just so shocked by the book’s cover. I couldn’t imagine that a book so interesting could have a cover so uninteresting. And so that’s why I actually picked it up and I could never put it down.
So then I just wanted to go and discover where these spaces were that honored freed slaves, that honored the freed people. That Massachusetts even encouraged to use our capitalist system to find and fight for their own freedom. What an amazing thing that on this island there was an idea of Memorialization that was quite different from others that I was often used to engaging with and looking up at a grand statue of someone who most likely colonized a land or won a war or something where these kind of live tributes to past peoples and people. They were based in stones. Sure. There are, of course, some that have beautiful plaques and tell the story of who was here and at what era.
But the island’s tradition was based in pilings of rocks. And so it was something that continued on. And I love that that was something that you could participate in the present tense and continue to build and change just as it was so naturally and normally in your space and in your environment.
So it brought back this idea of normalcy again. And I just am absolutely for normalizing art making and expression, right? And here I was watching memorialization just become normalized right, in an active tense. And then that brought up the idea of what is the idea of soil? What is the idea of space and territory and who are the people and how can I celebrate the shoulders upon whom I stand at the same time? Maybe break down these systems that actually have trained us to behave in certain ways at the same time through the stories of who we are?
<Michael Sean Breeden (MSB)> Right. I’m curious, when you’re creating a work that is so invested in so many complex themes, how explicitly are you trying to get them across? Or like when you said that you saw the virgin Mary with dark skin. And that gave you a feeling? It’s like, are you trying to evoke that feeling? Are we trying to get, like, the specificity of this interaction you had at the store, finding this book? How much or how little? Are we trying to be explicit with these ideas? Or does it just vary from work to work?
<Stefanie Batten Bland> Now, I think I’m explicit. I think that I’m explicit in how I dream up the world. For an audience member to feel my original creative nugget. That’s not necessary at all. What’s a broader takeaway that might end up in a conversation or a dialogue is more interesting to me. And what that dialogue is, that’s private for them. The idea that I know that there are visuals that I can bring up that will offer question is what I’m after.
<Rebecca King Ferraro (RKF)> I wonder. So once you found this book and you read it and you couldn’t put it down, what process did you then go through? Take us through reading it, what other research did you do? How did you start to create the idea for embarking and really start to create it and get some dancers in the studio?
<Stefanie Batten Bland> So I guess that’s also slightly different for us is that the studio, all of it is the studio. So the first thing was, and I’m sure this is the interdisciplinary side of all of this, is visiting the sites, was then meeting fishermen, was then working with elders on the island, was then touching the different types of sands and clays that the Wapanog part of the island holds deer and is still a very treasured tourist attraction. And looking at the play on soil and to be soiled, and the positive negatives and the naturalism of this and bringing people together so that I could to me celebrate all of this through vehicularity. To me, this was about land, voyage, lands, and how we use materials to enrobe ourselves and create. So textiles. So then I realized I was really talking about the story of textiles.
Then museums get involved so that I can touch things and then I can discover things and I can talk with historians and then I can just again get out and swim in the waters of these special places. And as I understood that this needed to be about voyage, then I understood it needed to be about a boat. And then I was on Martha’s Vineyard with great fishermen captains. And the idea of then bringing them together with the scenic designer with whom I actually work, who actually happens also to be a captain.
Again, it’s the accident. So everybody, we got together and we started exploring. And this is and performance already a part of this because we’re all working with the same materials and we’re all exploring the same materials. What is the mass? What’s the weight of it? How do you move one around? How do you make one cynically? How do you make one that’s performatively based? What do the sales look like: of which era, of what type of boat? And since this piece is one about transformation, then how can sails then become clothing, then become flags. So that we can touch the macro, we can also touch the micro, and then we can also touch identity inside of how it represents us.
All of that is in just all kinds of different spaces. We happen to be fortunate to work at the yard, out on Martha’s vineyard. This is indoors, this is outdoors. This is where the ship docks. This is also with our other collaborators. Our team is made up of just so many people with whom we collaborate. So also our costume designer who’s testing different types of fabrics and seeing how things respond to water and to weight, and what works best, and me splashing around with it.
I feel like it was a very solo experience until around 2017 or 2018. And then we started having budget, where we could start really bringing everybody together to start looking at what would it take to make something like this.
<MSB> Right? This is where I wanted to go. I was so curious about it. Because your process is so important to you as an artist and at what point, then, do you feel like it’s appropriate? Is that just something that you like, instinctively know? Like, at what point are you just like OK, “I’m ready to move forward with the more practical components, a budget and, you know, maybe like nailing down a theater, or are we doing it outdoors, are we doing it indoors?” Are we doing both? You know, that sort of thing. Like when do you feel like you’re in the right space to move into that next phase?
<Stefanie Batten Bland> Yes, I think it is it’s in function as a commission. Right? I mean, the American system works on commission base and that’s what drives all the finances. So I think what we were really lucky is that we were coming off the cusp of “Welcome”, which had already been so successful and was touring so much. Then I had the liberty to say that I was really interested in doing this, and then the partners just start jumping at it.
And then once the collaborative partner base was together and then of course, we were also moving in momentum as an organization. So one thing immediately allows the other to occur. The snowball just gets bigger because there’s infrastructure that becomes that is in place, there’s general ops that are now in place, which just allows me to dream in a more fuller way.
That does happen quite quickly, in the sense that, as soon as partners are behind you and believe in your idea, then, well, then we can really be serious and we can say, “well, this is what I really want to do.” And then you feel the support and then the space is there to dream. Right?
I knew immediately with I think upon touching an afghan that was 400 years old, that a free person had knitted that: this needed to be about textile. Okay. So I was on the phone pretty much the next day with Shane Ballard, with who I love to work, and it was okay, “so how do we transform cloth” like, what is that story and what is that practice? Because it’s already inherent inside of African American heritage, as in all heritages, actually, but from the point the perspective from the point of view that I was really loving.
<MSB> “Embarqued” sounds like such an incredible project and you’ve had this beautiful process. It must be amazing to gift it to audiences at BAM. Can you just tell us when the performances are and maybe how we could if we’re in the New York area, how we might be able to buy a ticket?
<Stefanie Batten Bland> Absolutely. So indeed, the BAM Next Wave Festival is one of the most prestigious festivals of the New York City area and one that celebrates contemporary culture of domestic, national and international artists. And it is a great honor to be participating in this. BAM Next Wave for our show exists November 1-5. We are in the Fisher Space, which is on Ashland, and you can go to BAM.org and look up under Embarked and you’ll find tickets and we’re every night for those five nights.
<Stefanie Batten Bland> Thank you so much.
<MSB> Thank you.
<RKF> Thank you.