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Laying foundation: Stefanie Batten Bland’s CONCRETE Immersive Theatre Intensive 

Stefanie Batten Bland.
Stefanie Batten Bland.

Watching dancers turn and leap in a darkened theater, removed at a distance – that’s one thing. Being fully immersed, performers working all around you and all of your senses absorbed – that’s a whole other. With post-postmodern dance continuing to blur lines of genre and style, there’s a lot of fresh, intriguing work happening that falls into the second category. 

Stefanie Batten Bland is at the vanguard of this kind of work, in a blend of European and American traditions (from Bill T. Jones to Pina Bausch to Punchdrunk and Emursive Productions). She’s also building up the next generation of artists working in this vein, through initiatives such as this summer’s CONCRETE three-week intensive at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Dance Informa speaks with her about the nature of immersive theater, what’s in store with CONCRETE and how all of this will move forward into the future.

Immersive or experiential theater: Playing in the sandbox, rigorously

Immersive theater (or physical or experiential theater, as nomenclature alternatives) requires “modalities to exist together,” Batten Bland explains. Audience members are also in close proximity, and performers don’t have “the protection of the fourth wall,” she adds. It asks us “to confront fact and fiction at the same time…which feels funny and wild and exhilarating all at the same time.”

CONCRETE Immersive Theatre Intensive logo.

At least where performers are concerned, “isn’t that the experience of everyone’s first class when they decided they need to do this for a living?” Batten Bland quips. For her, it’s a natural progression to create in this way – coming from the “grandeur of storytelling” of Pina Bausch’s work, for example. She’s also very open to what will emerge through alchemical process, another quality of working in this genre. “I never know what will transpire from what comes to my mind in a moment,” she says.

There has been more exchange between the “two sides of the pond” of theater and dance, Batten Bland believes – and this kind of work is being more celebrated. Creating in this form also does require close and extensive conversation amongst all collaborators. Everyone is “playing in the sandbox,” she says – playing rigorously.

CONCRETE: The space and time to build 

The specialized skillset required to do all of that isn’t automatic, and not necessarily the same as standard modern and postmodern technique. “The performers need to learn the technique [at hand] to immerse audience members in that way…with the tools to dismantle stereotypes and disarm audience members’ biases,” Batten Bland affirms. There can be a whole lot of unknown in that – and that place, of awkward silences and nervous laughter, can be a place of “research.” 

“Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed how much work it takes to train the modern dancer to gain these skills” – and about “how we train in higher education spaces,” she notes. Within all of that, “opening up ways to understand what embodiment means” comes the need to examine and refine how such ways are realized. “It’s investing in self,” Batten Bland says. “The work is the work…I can’t text it to you.” 

With all of that, enter CONCRETE, an immersive theater intensive, kicking off at Montclair State University, from June 10-28. Batten Bland is clear that it’s a pilot program. Out of Batten Bland’s “rolodex” of collaborators and partners, Montclair State – where she is also an assistant professor – was the most enthusiastic about working with her. Things moved forward from there. 

The name “CONCRETE” gives the sense that “we’re churning up to put these forms together,” she explains. It’s laying a firm, solid foundation on which to further build. The sense of that pervades the entire experience, down to individual class names such as “Gravel” and “Stones.” 

Disciplines on offer to study include clowning, partnering, voice in movement and working with props/materials. Participants will investigate live art tools such as ensemble work and shaping how live performers are perceived in physical space. The three weeks of study will culminate in an immersive production. 

Stefanie Batten Bland and dancers in Wandering Bodies show, The Glass House. Photo by Michael Biondo.
Stefanie Batten Bland and dancers in Wandering Bodies show, The Glass House. Photo by Michael Biondo.

With three weeks under three different directors, there’s ample opportunity for foundation-building. All of those directors are teaching artists, in the true sense of the term; “every artist we have teaching is a great pedagogue…the roster is intentional and specific in that way,” Batten Bland says. That roster includes such celebrated industry movers and shapers as Jamal Abrams, Kayla Farrish, Joy-Marie Thompson, Guillaume Segouin, and Kelly Ashton Todd. Leslie Kraus and Dan Safer will serve as Directors, with Batten Bland at the helm as Artistic Director. 

CONCRETE is open to both college students and professional artists (any artist 18+). There is no requirement to attend the entire intensive; professionals who might find the associated expense and scheduling challenging are welcome to join for the morning classes. Attending afternoon sessions is required for joining in the showing at the end of the session, however. 

One could foresee challenges with such a motley arrangement of artists working together – yet Batten Bland doesn’t. “If you’re a good choreographer, you’ll make work for a five-year-old or 90-year-old,” she believes. She questions the “very Americanized way of thinking…that generations can’t coalesce.” Immersive theater itself, being intergenerational, defies that idea, she notes.

Stepping forward: Building up future colleagues and a more sustainable field 

Batten-Bland is hoping to see participants walk away from the experience “with access…to be part of this genre – another space that is dominating hiring markets right now.” It’s readying artists to be hired, she notes. She envisions them going back to their “school or proscenium work” with fresh conceptions of “what embodiment means.” How we train artists to discern, think and ask questions also truly matters to her; “that’s all fascinating to me.” 

Company SBB in Fleur du Mal show. Photo courtesy of Company SBB.
Company SBB in Fleur du Mal show. Photo courtesy of Company SBB.

Such groundwork in artists can nurture the myriad of modalities that can feed all of our technical fields. “That makes my job easier,” Batten-Bland affirms, by making stronger colleagues and fortifying the field. Most importantly, perhaps, she wants participants to “come away a better person and artist.”  

As for the future of CONCRETE, Batten Bland thinks that the pilot could even lead to an immersive theater university minor or major; “then it’s off to the races…who’s going to be the first to make that program?” Whoever it is, Batten Bland wants the pedagogy and the work to continue. “I’ve seen what SUNY Purchase and Goddard did for me, and I want that torch to be passed.” 

Applications to attend CONCRETE are due by March 15th. Find instructions for applying, as well as more about the intensive, here.

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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