Five questions for dance professor Stefanie Batten Bland

Dance professor Stefanie Batten Bland is busier than ever: In January, American Ballet Theatre will stage her work at Duke University in North Carolina as part of the A.B.T. Women’s Movement initiative supporting female choreographers; in the spring, she’ll be a resident fellow at New York University’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. Here, Batten Bland discusses her bohemian childhood in New York City’s SoHo, her years working in Paris, and the music she not only adores, but needs.

How did you end up working as a dancer in Paris? 
I’m Creole on my father’s side, and I grew up with French because of my mother’s work with the Cousteau Society, so French is my second language. France was the most comfortable for me to navigate as a performer of colors as well as lifestyle wise. I was deeply in love with a Parisian (isn’t it always the case?), and I auditioned for the Paris Opéra Comique’s Joséphine musical as a performer and left as head choreographer. The next six years were of such importance artistically: Being a part of the Paris Opéra system was a major validating move for a foreigner.

You’ve been known to mix seemingly disparate musical genres in your work—classical with soul with Louisiana Creole music, etc. Name the top five songs on your ultimate playlist.
"Excursions," by A Tribe Called Quest; "Me Revoilà Paris," by Josephine Baker; "MLK," by U2; "Flôr di nha esperanca," by Cesária Évora; "Me and Your Mama," by Childish Gambino.

Your mother is a science writer, and your father was musician and composer Ed Bland, who wrote arrangements for Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sun Ra. How did their interests shape you as an artist?
I grew up in a very specific place due to the artists who created SoHo. This type of childhood resulted in a comfort with different. I saw weird, long-haired women walking sideways in harnesses at parties and big-bellied men who sang and be-bopped. I also, though, had a very country summer life, racially and radically different from New York. Virginia, where my mom is originally from, was still slowly exiting segregation and bias, and that left a stamp on me of being an “other.” My childhood memories, I think, explain why I’m so comfortable in so many different spaces, genres, and in global places. This is reflected in my work through my interdisciplinary approach to telling stories. 

What is particularly “New York” about your work?
This is a place where one dives in the pool in the deep end, head first. The fact that I create spaces where my pieces take place is unique to the loft upbringing I had. That is essential New York. I’d also say what is very American about how and what I do is the desire to give to others—to pass the torch of opportunity down to the next generation; to help make people who will be around once I’m no longer around better than me. That is found only in the relationship that we have between artists and institutions like Rutgers, for example. We don’t have state theaters that align with creators. Our universities do this. That type of intergenerational dialogue helps me ask questions of my process, what and why I’m making and how I’m communicating.

What’s the last piece of art that rearranged the furniture in your mind?
Yinka Shonibare’s Wind Sculpture in Central Park this spring threw a wrench in my thinking, living, and seeing. I’m a fan of how he threads historical context into the contemporary. He does this with colors, with form patterns. His work makes me see history, feel history, and see how it is part of the fabric of today.

Photo by JC Dhien
Information accurate as of October 2018