Billy Blanken has always been an activist, and his choreographic works reflect that. As Artistic Director of New York City-based Sheep Meadow Dance Theatre (SMDT), founded in 2016, he has used his artistic voice to convey characters, to tell interesting stories and to bring certain issues to the forefront.
His work, CASKET LETTERS, for example, is about the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots for her infamous and historically debated treason against Elizabeth I. CASKET LETTERS is a gestural-based work that uses Elizabethan costumes and contemporary movement to tell a loose narrative. “The calls of ‘but her emails’ and foreign interference in the 2016 election cycle inspired this work,” Blanken explains. “Whereas my motivation is not a literal depiction, the piece questions power, corruption and loyalty. Historians do not know if Mary had become a domestic terrorist from her years in captivity or if she had been set up and Elizabeth’s hand forced to keep the throne.”
Other works, too, were inspired by cultural and political events. FEARLESS, which debuted at last year’s Queensboro Dance Festival, was inspired by the Women’s March and incorporates Ashley Judd’s “Nasty Woman” spoken word, written by Nina Donovan. And Blanken’s HIVEMIND, which will be performed at the end of March at NYC’s Dixon Place, uses a secret society as a metaphor for the danger of individuality in tribal political times.
Even the company’s name is reflective of cultural events, and those taking place in Sheep Meadow, the 15-acre preserve located in the heart of NYC’s Central Park, which has a history of being a gathering place for demonstrations and political movements.
“I named the company Sheep Meadow Dance Theatre after doing research about events that took place in the center of Manhattan – be-ins, protests, children’s pageants, the moon landing viewing, concerts, speeches, rallies, parades and more,” Blanken says. “I’m taking my favorite place in New York as the starting point to create works of dance theater that are all connected by location. In this way, I am playing with a historical fiction based on real events and emotions, and find that dance theater is the perfect medium to convey our history and its connection to our future.”
SMDT is truly dance theater. The company uses costumes, props and makeup to help tell stories and is strongly character-driven. Characters range from Elizabethan Queens to a mother at the end of her life, from a secret society to the Japanese God of Wind to a homeless hustler. “The secret I have not shared as of yet – even with the dancers – is that all of the characters are connected,” Blanken reveals.
And for such diverse, sometimes conflicted, characters, SMDT calls for a group of technically strong, artistically mature dancers. Blanken says he has a collective of dancers who are “fearless, humble, opinionated, well-trained and able to grasp difficult material on a personal level. Honesty and integrity are of highest value to me.”
SMDT dancer Lydia Holtz says that Blanken’s choreography – which she describes as both classical and explorative, musical and conceptual – is interesting to both the dancers who perform it and the audience members who view it.
“Billy is creating diverse work that has a strong voice while pushing his dancers beyond their comfort zone,” Holtz says. “An audience member will never leave a viewing of his work with an apathetic heart.”
In addition, Holtz says the working environment Blanken creates for SMDT is one that is safe, communal, organized and joyful.
“I like to keep the environment in the rehearsal room light and supportive,” Blanken states. “Too many dancers are subject to abuse and/or manipulation from the front of the room. That environment does not help me create, nor did it nurture me as an artist. I don’t feel you need to ‘break someone down’ in order to build them up. I demand much of the dancers physically and emotionally, and need them to feel safe to take risks. I value them each for their individual gifts and watch them work tirelessly to convey each story with grace.”
While SMDT has been on a roll lately – performing at showcases like NACHMO, Fertile Ground, DUMBO Dance Festival and more to come this spring – Blanken admits a struggle is, much like many other companies and choreographers face, finding funding to pay his artists appropriately. But he still remains positive and hopeful. “Starting something completely new takes a good deal of courage,” he says. “I’m grateful to be in New York, where people are hungry for the arts and understand how vital they are to American culture.”
And amidst any difficulties, or current events, Blanken plans to continue creating work and pushing forward, pushing boundaries. He teaches ballet at Peridance Capezio Center, is continually looking to expand into more residencies for himself and SMDT, and hopes to have the company’s first full season by 2019.
“I would hope audiences appreciate my flare for the theatrics and high level of technical skill from the dancers,” Blanken shares. “Simply put, dance should not be boring. I firmly believe you can make pieces that are mindful, relevant, while still electric and impressive. No one wants to go to the theater and suffer.”
Next up, Sheep Meadow Dance Theatre will perform HIVEMIND at Dixon Place on March 28. For tickets, click here. And for more information on Billy Blanken and SMDT, visit sheepmeadowdanceth.wixsite.com/smdt.
By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.