Images as Inspiration

By Claudia Bauer


In 2013, choreographers Christy Funsch and Peiling Kao held a performance in the former Meridian Gallery on Powell Street, where they danced in response to new paintings by British postmodernist Abby Leigh. The intimacy of their solos and duets, performed in small rooms and in immediate proximity to the paintings, was emotionally profound and intellectually thrilling.

A year later, choreographic duo Lauren Simpson and Jenny Stulberg began work on what would become the four-part Still Life series, which wraps up this month with the premiere of Still Life No. 4. Inspired by paintings in the de Young Museum’s permanent collection, Simpson and Stulberg use the works’ compositional underpinnings as cues for structure and movement style.

What is it about two-dimensional color and line that can inspire movement? What lasting effect can a danced relationship with visual art have on a choreographer’s process, or on their perception of dance as an art form? With these questions as their prompt, the choreographers met to exchange notes and ideas about working with visual art. The meeting proved more fruitful than any of us expected, and encompassed the experience of performing for a visual-arts audience and the expressive potential of abstraction. Special thanks to ODC for providing their conference room for this interview.

CLAUDIA BAUER: Where did you get the idea to make painting-based dances?

Jenny Stulberg: Lauren had just begun being a companion for a woman named Pauline Schwartz, who is 97 and was a docent for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for about 30 years. Mrs. Schwartz was teaching her all about still-life paintings. We decided to pick a painting and create a piece based on its compositional elements. The first one we did [No. 1] was Raphaelle Peale’s Blackberries (1813). As opposed to creating a piece where we were physicalizing a bowl of blackberries, we were taking compositional elements from it – the size, precision, light. [No. 2 and No. 3, created in 2015, were based on William Harnett’s 1885 After the Hunt and David Ligare’s 1994 Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches, (Xenia); they have not revealed the painting behind No. 4.]

Lauren Simpson: She [Schwartz] would talk about texture, color, light, contrast, and how these still lifes were an opportunity for artists to paint “meaningless” items and experiment with formal elements. Jenny and I thought, these are elements we’d like to see more of in our dancing.

CB: How does that manifest in the choreography?

still life painting of sandwiches leaning against jug of juice
‘Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches, (Xenia)’ by David Ligare, 1994; photo courtesy of

LS: Some of it is intuitive. But the other part is the compositional rules in still life painting; everything is so deliberate. In Grape Juice there’s a corner, and in the middle is the grape juice and sandwiches. So we put the dancers in the upstage corner pretty much the entire time. We decided to stick with that as a compositional score, even though there’s a lot of temptation to do something else.

JS: Blackberries is about 12″ x 18″, and you have to get really close to see the detail. I’m pretty sure it was Lauren who said, let’s take this movement and shrink it. It’s become our signature movement style – small, quick, unified. I don’t think anything in No. 1 looks like blackberries, but we were thinking about the precision and the tininess.

CB: Those paintings were representational. But the Abby Leigh paintings were completely abstract.

Peiling Kao: They’re geometric lines, a chunk of color. The intention we wanted was about the space in the gallery itself: the space between the paintings, between the paintings and us, and between us and the audience. How do I feel about yellow and red, how do I feel about the lines and how do I feel about the space in front of or behind something?

dancer bends in gallery in front of red and yellow painting
Peiling Kao in Meridian Gallery with Abby Leigh’s “Lipstick”

Christy Funsch: I felt a real physical response to the shape of the works, but also of the space. In that tiny room, what’s possible for me to do? Is it possible for the audience to see the artwork and see me?

LS: Christy, it’s an interesting difference in that we don’t care if the audience ever sees the painting. It’s a foundation for the work, but we almost never show the painting itself. As far as gallery space is concerned, I’m drawn to the audience of the visual art world. I think there’s a different kind of rigor in that eld, and a different way of talking about artworks. It’s an opportunity to see dance in the same way we see a painting. On the one hand, that could be dehumanizing – paintings aren’t people. But I do like attempting to abstract dance as much as we can.

CF: I think visual-arts audiences have more comfort with abstraction than concert goers.

LS: I feel really at home in the visual arts world, because we can make abstracted movement and people are really accepting of it. We can entertain the idea that dance can just be about formal elements. It feels like it’s okay to do that, and somehow it’s not okay in the performing arts. I feel free to do this “meaningless” work; I’m trusting that meaning will happen.

PK: It’s a privilege to work in this way, where you feel like you have a painting or a composition that anchors you.

CF: I feel like there are a lot of ways that dance has been asked to “behave” – behave to the music, to the meaning, to content –

PK: – to the count. CF: Absolutely.

CB: A lot of dance is used to make a political point. These dances are wholly different from that.

JS: Not having a specific story or point we were trying to get across, the response I heard from audience members was so vast. By not telling people what to think, it allows them to go anywhere.

PK: If you can feel a moment and feel touched, or feel something you cannot even describe, I think that is enough.

JS: If I don’t tell them that there’s something to get, then I feel like I can’t fail. It’s so vulnerable to put forth what you’re feeling in the piece, and by not saying anything, to me it’s almost a way to hide behind it.

CF: I’ve made all kinds of work and I’ve told stories sometimes, and I really do have my own story for my work. But I feel like it’s my job to allow for multiple readings. There’s no shield, really. When you’re putting work out there, there it is. It’s never felt comfortable.

CB: How have these experiences influenced you as dance makers?

5 dancers lean seated onto left arm in unison
‘Still Life No. 3,’ photo by Kegan Marling

LS: There’s a couple of Richard Diebenkorn still lifes in the de Young; he did around 150 and got really good at it. So we got the idea, what if we just stuck with something and repeated it? That changed the nature of our work – instead of “make something new, make something new.” And there’s so much craft in the still lifes that I had not paid attention to in the way that we are now. That has changed the movement itself. Part of it is being small and subtle in the body; No. 3 had a lot of subtlety of the back.

JS: I have also been making dance films. What I love about film is the ability to shape the frame of the viewer very specifically. [In our choreography], we’ve been able to create frames and focal points for the viewers – like, we want you to just look at our fingers.

CF: I think it’s great you mentioned Diebenkorn, because his trajectory was from the figurative to the completely abstract, sometimes in the same work.

LS: Yeah. And in a gallery there’s this other dimension. We’re very used to the floor as dancers, but the wall is new, and it’s messing us up – in a good way. I want to be in a gallery, using this vertical surface.

CF: One thing I learned was how much the way things are put in a room directs your movement and experience of them. The space was designed so specifically to see those works – the way they were placed, how much space was around them. That was a moment of seeing space differently and knowing how big an effect it has on me. I did my piece in Santa Cruz, New York, Golden Gate Park and in the YBCA Forum. That was like an unspooling study in different contexts. For me, it’s an ongoing interest – looking at the work in different containers.

LS: Working with the still-life paintings has made me think about ephemerality and dancing. These artists are usually painting things that are rotting or decaying, like carcasses or fruit. They can’t paint fast enough before the stuff changes. They are working with ephemeral stuff and making it something static, and we’re turning a static thing into an ephemeral form. It’s nice to feel a part of those cycles.

Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations: Still Life No. 4. Thu-Sat Mar 31-Apr 2. ODC Theater, SF.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and