The Magic and Magnetism of Stefanie Batten Bland
Stefanie Batten Bland admits that writers and critics have often struggled to describe her and her genre-bending work.
Their plight is understandable. You could situate Batten Bland amongst the icons she’s danced for, like Pina Bausch and Bill T. Jones. You could list the varied settings in which she works: with her own troupe, Company SBB//Stefanie Batten Bland; in buzzy, immersive shows like Sleep No More; on commercial projects for brands like Hermès and Louis Vuitton; in her game-changing classes at Montclair State University. Or you could highlight the elements that animate her transformative dance-theater pieces: the balance of abstraction and narrative, the dazzling theatricality, the shifts in space and time.
All of those descriptions are accurate. But no list of adjectives or accolades or resumé highlights can fully capture Batten Bland and the entrancing worlds she creates on stages and beyond.
For Batten Bland herself, it’s not so complicated: “I’m a professional collager,” she jokes. “I put a lot of stuff together and it works out.”
Though Batten Bland is talking about the micro—the way she blends genres and mediums and influences in her choreography—the same could be said for the macro of her life: how she moves through the world, weaving together her disparate artistic and personal experiences and forging connections through her preternatural charisma.
To collage is an inclination that Batten Bland comes by naturally. She grew up in a former paper factory in New York City’s SoHo, the daughter of a writer and a jazz composer. “The neighborhood was a cacophony of colors, sound, texture, scent,” she says. “It’s not at all lost upon me why I do what I do now, how I can inhabit a single space and yet turn it into so many at the same time.”
When Batten Bland was 9, gentrification pushed her family out of SoHo, and they relocated to Los Angeles. She spent her teenage years immersed in political activism and studying dance at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, trekking back to New York City during the summers to train at The Ailey School and the Joffrey Ballet School.
After two years at SUNY Purchase, Batten Bland left to pursue professional work with choreographers like Seán Curran, Kraig Patterson, and Jones. It was while on an international tour with Jones that Batten Bland connected with Bausch’s company, Tanztheater Wuppertal, which was also touring. When visiting Wuppertal, she received a last-minute request from Bausch to audition to replace an injured dancer. Batten Bland learned a solo over the course of a few hours, then performed it for Bausch, who sweetly asked if she could do it again, but “better.”
Guesting with Tanztheater Wuppertal unlocked the European dance scene for Batten Bland. “I came out of that feeling like I had cracked the door into a space that had different types of making that I hadn’t had access to before,” she says. She relocated to France, and danced for artists like Hungarian physical-theater giant Pál Frenák and modern African choreographer Georges Momboye. She also began to choreograph. Her first evening-length work, Let’s Hang Out Like Wet Clothes, was a success and toured Europe. “The joy that I got from actually seeing that work live was the same pleasure that I received being inside of work,” she says. “I didn’t know that transference was possible. It was intoxicating.”
In 2008, Batten Bland founded her company to support her growing choreographic projects. Before long, she began feeling the call to come back stateside: Her parents were getting older, and she felt she had reached her ceiling in France. Batten Bland worried that her work wouldn’t be understood, as dance theater wasn’t nearly as popular in the U.S. as it was in Europe. But in 2011, she made the move, encouraged by her longtime supporter Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom she’d met early in her performing career in New York City. He predicted—correctly—that dance theater was growing in the New York scene, and offered her the support of his Baryshnikov Arts Center.
When Batten Bland auditioned for the then-recently opened Sleep No More in New York City, she knew that she had made the right decision. “It was like, duh, this is exactly what I’ve been made for,” she says. “It was another extension of how I already coexist inside that amazing hyphenation of theater-and-dance.” Batten Bland was in Sleep No More off and on until 2018, performing two of the show’s most iconic roles, the Bald Witch and Lady Macbeth.
Simultaneously, her company—now binational, with both American and French performers—was slowly gaining recognition stateside. Its visually stunning, highly tactile pieces appealed to both downtown dance insiders and first-timers. “Her work is incredibly accessible,” says Mia Yoo, artistic director of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, where Batten Bland is a resident artist. “Even if you’re not somebody who goes to see abstract dance—the community that she can speak to is vast and across the spectrum of performance-goers.”
But it wasn’t until 2017 that her work received widespread acclaim, with Bienvenue뻑短WelcomeBienvenidoكب الهأ, a La MaMa commission exploring immigration and featuring striking cardboard walls graffitied by audience members. The next few years marked one breakthrough after another, with 2019’s Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, an inventive reimagining of the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and 2022’s Embarqued: Stories of Soil, her Brooklyn Academy of Music debut. Embarqued—which explores African ancestral stories and transforms the stage into the deck of a ship—sold out its run, and the standby line wrapped through the building. “That made me feel like, wow, this scene is taking me seriously,” says Batten Bland. “I don’t feel like I have always been seen the way I thought I would have been here.”
This idea of being seen is a choreographic interest of Batten Bland’s—she likes to play with presence and absence, visibility and invisibility. Ensuring that the artists she works with are seen fully is also something of a mission. “She wants you to be who you are,” says Jennifer Payán, Company SBB’s associate artistic director. “She sees the heart and the imagination in someone’s choices, and then she amplifies it.” As longtime company member Emilie Camacho puts it, “She knows how to reveal people.”
Sometimes, she reveals people more literally. At Sleep No More, to which she returned in 2021 as a performance and identity liaison, she has worked with designers to properly light artists with darker skin tones. She’s also helped the show rethink its casting practices, inspired in part by her own experiences of being typecast throughout her career. “The world was saying, ‘Hey, has anybody noticed that Black women keep getting hired as witches?’ ” Batten Bland, who has an inviting energy and a gentle sense of humor, thrives when helping collaborators find common ground. “She shows everyone their bridge to each other,” says Kayla Farrish, a former Sleep No More performer and rehearsal director who has also performed with Batten Bland’s company.
Immersive theater has not only a diversity problem but also a training problem, Batten Bland says. Though the genre has exploded in the past decade, few collegiate programs prepare artists with the highly specific skills needed to be cast in a show like Sleep No More. Batten Bland, who recently earned an MFA in interdisciplinary arts from Goddard College, is starting to change that. Last year, she launched a physical-theater class at Montclair State University that links the dance and theater departments. She is also working with MSU to pilot an immersive-theater summer intensive, which will include classes like clowning, acting for dancers, and physical theater, as well as opportunities to work with immersive-theater makers.
Batten Bland’s latest piece for her own company is also her most immersive yet. Coup d’Espace, which will have a residency at La MaMa next year before its premiere, asks what it takes to make communal change, to overthrow a space. It’ll take place inside of nine distinct rooms—depending on the setting, it may take over an entire theater building, or overflow onto the street.
This year, Batten Bland will also be working as the casting and movement director for a new show from the creators of Sleep No More, and taking Embarqued on tour. When not on the road, she’ll return to her home base, which is back where everything started: She lives with her family in SoHo.
“I’ve never seen someone ahead of me,” she says. “There is no template for me to follow. I’m not stepping into anyone’s shoes. I’m just stepping.”