Duke Performances

Livestream Series: Q&A, ABT Takeover Artists Stefanie Batten Bland & Skylar Brandt

May 11, 2020


Duke Performances is partnering with Duke Arts and WXDU on a livestream series hosted by DP on Facebook Live and Instagram Live. This Wednesday, May 13, we’re continuing the series with choreographic artist Stefanie Batten Bland in collaboration with the American Ballet Theatre Studio Company & American Ballet Theatre Soloist Skylar Brandt.

In advance of these performances, we ask participating artists to reflect on how the coronavirus crisis has impacted their work, and what they are finding reassuring through these uncertain times.

We encourage you to check Duke Performances’ blog each week for a new Q&A. We also invite you to explore or contribute to Duke Arts’ “Arts & Artists Are Essential” collection of voices, opportunities, and offerings, or you can subscribe to receive weekly updates. Artists within and around the Duke University community remind us of the full spectrum of our creative power and our resilience as we navigate this new environment.


Stefanie Batten Bland rehearsing with the ABT Studio Company at Duke, February 2020. Photo by Alex Boerner.

Stefanie Batten Bland

We know artists are deeply impacted by COVID-19, both in their artistic career and in side gigs in other industries dependent on social interaction. Can you give us some insight into what has changed for you?

I think outside of fears surrounding health, for ourselves, the children and elders — as most artists and freelance cultural workers, finances were at the top of my concern. I am extremely lucky. I received a Small Business Administration loan, and Company SBB received a grant from the Artist Relief Fund. This has enabled us to pay all of our artists and consultants until the fall. I feel quite lucky — very lucky as I realize we are all fishing in the same pool of monies to survive.

Has your artistic practice been affected? For example, are you making any new work right now, or finding other ways to collaborate remotely?

Yes, completely. During the first few weeks I could absolutely have cared less about dance/work. I still feel that way a majority of the time. I consider myself a very modern woman within the workforce. I depend 100% on day care and school to do my work. I’ve mentioned this in other interviews but cannot highlight it enough when we come out from this. Suddenly being thrust into 100% full-time parent, remote learning director, food manager, all in one space together and still working when there are only two devices is insane. For everyone. How the workforce, unemployment – really all of our expectations we place on women to be, play, manage, and juggle need to be looked at. For the health of society and our health as its active members: it depends on structures taking into account how we do things. Not how much we do things.

I did not begin to have even an interest in creating and or making until a few weeks ago when the European Union contacted me to direct and choreograph for their commemorative day on May 9. The European Union was created just after World War II ended. This anniversary, they wanted to honor their home seat in New York at the United Nations and the New York City essential workers who are keeping us all safe. For this performance, we have been working on discovering Zoom, as that is the platform for the performance itself.

My company is international. We have members in France and in the U.S. in this project, as well as the Austrian musician Matthias Loescher, based in Brooklyn, performing together. Rehearsing through online platforms has and is being done by people for budgetary and accessibility reasons for a while. 

I do not usually enjoy it; I’d much rather be with people: feeling one another, inspiring one another. We were obliged to make in this format and our group, which makes a lot of dance cinema, approached this from the point of view of framing and editing in the live. Creating in this time offered us something to look forward to. Personally, a goal was to explore how expression can be fulfilling for performer and spectator. Finding expression in the scope of our reach in a live cinematic form was a wonderful experience. [As of my writing this], we just finished the show a couple of hours ago. Knowing that we were all together, connecting 14-plus countries together, was an extraordinary feeling. 

We will publicize your livestream with the suggestion that viewers make a donation to an artist relief fund of your choice, and will always include two local Durham, NC, options. Is there a relief fund or other support response close to your creative and/or local community you would like to share with us? 

The Actor’s Fund.

Do you have any words of hope, or artistic work you’ve found comfort in, that you’d like to share with our audience?

Expression is present all around us. We have to listen to this moment: Who it is taking away, who is able to get away from it? How do we live with it? We need to nurture our emotions and take care of our creative and mental selves. What we will make on the other side will remind us that we must see the world differently, see and hear one another differently.

I feel my privilege right now as I am no longer in the city. I could leave, and I know that I do not represent the majority of my city colleagues. I feel my duty is to speak and share our realities so that we can better fare through. I have support with my mom and partner down south on a farm. I haven’t worn a mask in three weeks. I feel how lucky I am to be with my family.

Feel your family. Love them. Love what you can do through a screen. We can do so much and we can touch many. Love getting away from it! I look forward to feeling and being with the people I love to work with. 

Within the live arts, I think this is a moment to appreciate size and to reshape what success means in our current standards. Large isn’t it, folks. We come into the world from two and that is small. We foster and grow into small groups. To me, this experience will oblige us to honor that the small and the medium have impact and are successful. I know this is where my work makes the most impact: on groups that can intimately engage with it. This shift in thought will ask us to change what we think about ticket sales and how monies flow throughout the discipline, but I deeply believe this halt will remind us that space, access, and ensemble have deep value and meaning. Bigger simply is just bigger; it isn’t better.


Skylar Brandt. Photo by Taylor Brandt.

Skylar Brandt

We know artists are deeply impacted by COVID-19, both in their artistic career and in side gigs in other industries dependent on social interaction. Can you give us some insight into what has changed for you?

Initially, I was extremely saddened and frustrated that ABT’s rehearsals and performances got cancelled. It was devastating to think that not only had my momentum stopped, but that I didn’t have any certainty as to when I would be back in the studios or onstage again.

This being said, I have experienced some really wonderful things during this time. I have been able to teach virtual private lessons to dancers all over the world. People of all ages, including those from Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Mexico, England, and India. I graduated from Harvard Business School’s “Crossover Into Business” program. I have been studying French on Rosetta Stone and have been spending a lot of wonderful quality time with my family. I have also been active in the dance community, helping to raise awareness about the arts and how people can get us dancers closer to being able to perform again through fundraising ideas and outreach. I have even continued to take virtual privates with my coaches as well, something that I would have bene doing regularly if COVID-19 didn’t put a pause on everything. It’s weird to think that I have been so busy during this time, but it has also been exhilarating in its own way.

Has your artistic practice been affected? For example, are you making any new work right now, or finding other ways to collaborate remotely?

Yes, I have actually collaborated with Misty Copeland, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, ABT and more. It has been nice to connect with people and companies from all over to help keep ourselves active and to make a difference in the world of dance as we remain in quarantine. I have also collaborated with my sister Taylor making dances on TikTok … which has been a riot. I am hoping that more collaborations like these continue even after we are back to work.

We will publicize your livestream with the suggestion that viewers make a donation to an artist relief fund of your choice, and will always include two local Durham, NC, options. Is there a relief fund or other support response close to your creative and/or local community you would like to share with us? 

If they could donate to the ABT Crisis Relief Fund as well, that would be fantastic. Thank you.

Do you have any words of hope, or artistic work you’ve found comfort in, that you’d like to share with our audience?

This coronavirus thing sucks….BUT. As long as we are forced to take some time off, we might as well enjoy it. I’m trying to use this time to reflect, to have quality time with the loved ones surrounding me, and to accomplish things I didn’t have time to do before. I am happy that the world has stopped for a moment and that animals and nature have had the chance to thrive again. I am continuing to work on personal growth in all aspects of my life, something I might not have otherwise done if I didn’t take a moment to pause.

The artist relief funds established by North Star Church of the Arts and the Durham Arts Council, as well as any additional funds nominated by the artist performing, are not affiliated with Duke University. Thank you for supporting local artists!

Scroll Up