A still life painting, with its static arrangement of objects, might not seem like a source of inspiration for choreographers.
In their "Still Life" series, Jenny Stulberg and Lauren Simpson of San Francisco prove there's ready material for movement.
For the seventh entry, the choreographer-dancers selected "Job Lot Cheap" an 1893 by John Frederick Peto, a native Philadelphian.
His trompe l'oeil still life centers on a bookshop's worn windowframe, pulled open to reveal a scattered arrangement of hardcovers carelessly leaning at angles. Below the books hangs a hand-painted sign that says "JOB LOT CHEAP," referring to an assortment of items for sale in bulk.
The two will premiere this piece, "Still Life No. 7," in Missoula this weekend as part of a residency with Bare Bait Dance, the local contemporary modern company based at the University of Montana.
The series originated when Simpson was working for a woman, age 96, who had volunteered as a docent for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco for more than three decades. She introduced Simpson to the many examples of 19th century American still life in the permanent collection. They were painted in the trompe l'oiel style that pursues realism to an extreme degree. She learned about foreshortening, lighting and other technical facets that make the pictures work.
"It started to change the way I looked at dances and the way that I looked at the stage space and movement," she said.
It was 2014, and she and Stulberg had recently met. The two, new to San Francisco, were offered a chance to perform for the first time in the Bay Area, and sought source material in that gallery. They picked “Blackberries” by Raphaelle Peale, from 1813. It's quite small, maybe a foot square.
While none of their dances are "about" the painting or directly comment on it, they imported ideas from the composition: detail, precision, intimacy, simplicity of objects, the specificity of the arrangements, Simpson said.
The word dance typically brings to mind large movements and gestures. Like many contemporary dancers, Stulberg and Simpson have studied many traditions, from ballet to postmodern minimalism and both have MFAs and teaching backgrounds. On stage, they're capable of dancing in a large, athletic manner, Stulberg said.
For these pieces, they took cues from the paintings' quiet, static nature. They started to make very small movements, some down to a flick of a finger, moving in unison. "We were interested in reshaping what virtuosity was for us," Stulberg said.
Their partnership, Simpson/Stulberg Collaborations, is now in its fourth year and seventh still life. For each piece, they search for new technical facets or challenges. "No. 7" has been in development for a year, during which they had two residencies in the Bay Area: one with a program of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company and another through the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.
In particular, Simpson said they were fascinated by Peto's use of "raking light," a single source not seen in the picture that results in high contrast and stark shadows, she said.
Likewise, their choreography will be lit from a single source at an angle. The books' leaning arrangements will figure into their movements, as well as the hinges and corners that populate Peto's canvas. There will be spoken word sequences referencing the jumble of unrelated texts, all for sale in one shot.
It's deliberately open-ended, a quality that they like in their art but doesn't reflect a lack of awareness in their lives.
"We're talking about what's happening in the world around us, and as human beings we're coming into the studio with these feelings and thoughts, and it comes out in some way without it trying to be a direct reflection to the work or saying something outright," Stulberg said.
During the election, they considered scrapping the project, since it could seem disconnected: making dance pieces based on old paintings during a heated political moment.
They considered the parts of the project they knew worked, from critics and audiences: a sense of deep listening, clear intent, honesty in performance, they said.
"We thought, those are things we want to see more of in ourselves and our leaders and our community. Why not go deeper into that?" Simpson said.
Bare Bait, a professional dance company in residence at the University of Montana's School of Theatre and Dance, put out an open call for this residency and picked Simpson and Stulberg from a pool about 35 applicants.
Joy French, Bare Bait's co-director and founder, said the "small, nuanced specificity" of their movements and concepts derived from paintings felt new and different. She said it's unusual, and difficult to do well in unison or in conjunction with another dancer, and seems to have more of a physical similarity with pop-and-lock than anything in modern dance, although their work doesn't look like hip-hop dance.
Stulberg and Simpson applied, and have spent about a week here. Bare Bait is providing the performance and practice space and all the help with marketing and advertising, which Simpson said is "an artist's dream." The two have each taught a class at UM and will give a master class for Bare Bait's dancers.
They'll premiere "Still Life" this weekend for the public. The piece, likely around 35 minutes, will be accompanied by video by Stulberg and another of their "dance films," a hybrid of choreography and film.
In the future, they have discussed collaborating with the art world, as a way to bring contemporary dance to new audiences.
Simpson is interested in further pursuing their idea of virtuosity: movements that are ordinary and easy for anyone to do, but choreographing them in way that not just anyone can: in unison, with speed and "unexpected rhythms," not unlike a dance based on a still life.