In Practice: Stephan Koplowitz on Making Site Work

By Sima Belmar

AXIS Dance Company (with additional cast) rehearses Stephan Koplowitz’s new work / photos by Robbie Sweeny

When I was living in Naples, Italy, I produced a dance series called Site-Specific at Rising South, a cavernous bar in the city’s historic center. I was able to call the series Site-Specific without having to parse the concept of site-specificity in part because nobody cared: English words arranged in meaning-less combinations adorn all sorts of Italian spaces—t-shirts, retail stores, menus. (A case in point: my daughter has an Italian t-shirt that says, “XXX-Best Color-Smell Like the Spirits.”) But I also thought that producing a dance series in a bar rather than in a theater constituted site-specificity. It turns out, I was sort of right: according to Stephan Koplowitz’s taxonomy of site-specific performance, my series, which invited choreographers from Naples and beyond to present works that had been made for the stage in the bar, constituted a “Category Three” site work, “placing an already created work in a new space” (see footnote 1).

Since the 1980s, Koplowitz, an award-winning international site artist and former Dean of Dance at CalArts, has dedicated himself “for the most part to making what I call ‘Category One’ site-specific work, which is when no creative material is made or decided upon prior to going through a process where the site generates as many creative decisions as possible.” He has made work on/ for the steps of the New York Public Library, in the halls of London’s Natural History Museum, in a German factory, and in the windows of Grand Central Station. On July 1 and 2, Bay Area audiences will be treated to Occupy, a new work Koplowitz created in collaboration with AXIS Dance Company and Pamela Z for the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. Koplowitz and I talked about the logistical and ethical considerations of making site work via Skype on April 17.

Sima Belmar: How did you become a site artist?
Stephan Koplowitz: My professional career started thanks to Elise Bernhardt when she invited me to make a work in the windows of Grand Central Station as a part of a huge event she was organizing in 1987 (see footnote 2) Prior to that year, Elise had seen an exhibition of my photographs in the gallery of Dance Theater Workshop. They reminded her of the windows, and she gave me the gig! I had no idea what I was doing. I was so naive I thought, When I’m a grown up artist I’m going to have my dancers on the stage! Little did I know what was actually happening. That piece taught me 65% of everything I know about making site work.

SB: How do you approach a new site?
SK: There are four filters that I think about when I’m approaching a site. The first one is the physical site itself: the design, the architecture, the contour, the physical space and what’s in it and how it looks. The physical site is where I always begin with a technique I call site inventory. It’s a very simple idea: you go to a site and take inventory of everything you can see. You write down and you take pictures. You physically walk through the site and measure it yourself if you can, or you look at the plans. You do so in a dispassionate manner, without any regard for aesthetics or any notion of what you want to do. You try to count as many different details of a site.

The second one is the history of the site, going back as far as one can go, and discovering how the site came to be what it is.

The third is the current use of the site: how do people who interface with the site use the site? How do they perceive the site? How do they feel about it?

The fourth filter takes a step back from the site to look at the community that surrounds it. I enter a place via the community to decide whether or not a particular site is the one to engage. Working with a community means spending time getting to know what people value in their community and how their environment influences or contributes to their values. From there you will find sites that have meaning that you may not have discovered had you just used your eyeballs and your prejudices. Because the thing is, in my career as a site artist, I’ve done more work outside of where I live, places I’m not a part of.

SB: How long does a site project typically take?
SK: It depends on the project. I will take as much time as I’m given. This piece [with AXIS] actually took four years to come about. Judy [Smith] invited me to come to Oakland in the spring of 2013. I ew up [from LA] early in the morning, and we spent like 10 hours looking for a site in Oakland. Judy originally wanted me to work in Oakland since the company is based there. But we did not find a site for what we wanted to do in part due to issues of access and issues of scale. Then we went to Yerba Buena, which I had researched in 1998 for a project at the center and the gardens, but funding didn’t come through. I knew the site came about through displacement. When we got to the gardens we could see that they are so beautifully designed for access. We got there and I said to her, “I think this is the place.” I spent 3 full days in different weeks this fall to do my site inventory because I had no real plan. I make my plan from my research. I also spent time at Yerba Buena just communing with nature without doing inventory, just observing, just being.

SB: Which helps you with filter number three, I presume.
SK: Yes, exactly right. I had lunch with the fine folks who run the gardens and talked to them about their experience of managing the park and producing art. Their experiences plus my knowledge of the history of the site, and the fact that I was working with a mixed ability company, and the idea of access to space, and the fact that we’re living in a time when two of the most significant cultural cities in America—New York City and San Francisco—are being completely decimated by space being priced out of people’s ability to live in, all came into how I came up with the theme of how bodies occupy space. I’m not using wide open spaces. I’m looking at very small and specific locations inside the park and putting lots of people in them. People occupy spaces in particular ways hence the title, Occupy, which has many different meanings. Because I think of myself as a public artist, I’ve chosen to engage in the dialogue of a community or a city about who gets to occupy space, who gets to access public space, who gets to manage it, who gets to make deci- sions about it. Whether I get access, how I use it, how I bring audiences to it—it all becomes a negotiation. And more and more I feel that this issue of public space is under siege; the idea that we’re abandoning real spaces for virtual space is not fake news.

SB: So how have you been working with AXIS?
SK: I’ve worked with a lot of different types of performers in my life. I had a reputation of working in NYC with non-dancers, with dancers of different ages. I’ve taught for 33 years all different types of folks, but I’ve never worked with a mixed ability company. So I insisted, and Judy of course agreed without batting an eyelash, that I would have a time period where I’m not working on the piece, I’m just in the studio with the company, and allowing them to teach me. After my initial session with AXIS Dance Company, then I had one week in March when I worked on site and in the studio with 11 folks, the company and 4 invited artists. I had lunch during that time with Marc Brew and Judy, and I asked them what they get out of work- ing with artists like myself who they had never worked with, and they chuckled and said sometimes we think it’s the artist that is getting more out of it than their dancers.

SB: Any last thoughts?
SK: I don’t believe that site-specific work anywhere can exist in a vacuum. It is a political act, it is a social act, whether you want it to be or not. I try to keep my ego, prejudices, and priorities as an artist at bay as much as I can when I start a work. Of course, what I’m saying is impossible, but I try to be as disciplined as possible by putting myself in certain modes of thought and certain processes to help me be more of an open vessel to a site. I am a big proponent of going with your gut, but I do think there has to be a conscious going with your gut. It takes a lot of work to stay open to the four filters and the processes that support them. I always say, Why do I put myself through this? For me, it’s exciting to discover something outside of my own experience.

1. Stephan Koplowitz, “Still Learning, Doing, and Relearning: Thoughts on Making and Defining Site-Specific Performance,” in Melanie Kloetzel and Carolyn Pavlik, Site Dance: Choreographers and the Lure of Alternative Spaces (Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 2011), 74. Koplowitz’s four categories of site work are: [4] Reframing the Known, [3] Reframing from Studio to Site, [2] Site-Adaptive, [1] Site-Specific.

2. Grand Central Dances (1987) featured works by Lucinda Childs, Merce Cunningham, and Philippe Petit.

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Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is ODC Writer in Residence and host of the new podcast Dance Cast. She has been writing the “In Practice” column for In Dance since 2017. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to