"Stephanie Leathers’s SITES is performance art with all its rough majesty and temporal futility. It is the epitome of “you had to be there”. It is not subtle. It is harsh and thundering. It makes you ask questions about why you engage with art.
If art is a metaphor, what is the distance between what art is saying and what society is doing? What if it is nil? Is art then a metaphor or a much more dangerous and rebellious act of protest? Totalitarian societies have had to ask themselves this question seriously, with deadly consequences.
I have argued in these pages previously that art is embedded in the society it comes from, it isn’t owned, but it is rooted- think soil and a plant.
In an era of extreme wealth, rapid development, and Trumpian ostentation is Durham pushing back or caving in? Art is at the forefront of that debate.
Leathers’s Sites modern dance performances are embedded in Durham and specifically Durham’s ever changing development. The performances are ephemeral one-offs, you saw it or you didn’t.
My friend Lee Moore pointed out to me that Sites is the old Durham way in that it is highly collaborative. So many people have already participated, from the music angle Tommy Rau has been a staple, but Johnathan Lawrence Harmon aka The Real Laww, John Le Sueur aka JLa, and Curtis Eller have all made music for and with Sunday Sites. This Friday the music will be The Lice; a trio featuring Duncan Webster of Beauty World and Hammer no More the Fingers, Nick Wallhauser, one of the Raundhaus co-founders, the polymath Rau.
It [Sunday Sites performance] is the tree growing in concrete. It is the possibility of anything happening anywhere. It is a tiny nudge that says this space is not gone. It is not useless. No space is useless. All can be transformed. This is the DNA of hope. It is the substance of what can be transformative. The recognition that all spaces and all places can be transformed.
I was reminded of the old REM tune that asks you to, stand in the place that you live, stand in the place that you work, and challenges you to look at them differently than you have before…"
"Leathers is sitting in the lobby of Unscripted Durham, a fitting place in which to recount the history of the project formerly known as Sunday SITES. Just after the 2016 election, in Home: the metamorphosis, Leathers and a group of local performers crawled across the chain-link construction fence on West Parrish Street and beckoned the crowd down Main Street, across the railroad tracks, and into the dusty shell of Fishmonger's (now Saint James Seafood). It's difficult to think of a place SITES artists haven't touched; drop a pin for each of their events—Leathers prefers "experiences" over "performances"—and you'd have a map of key sites in Durham's post-2010 development.
SITES began around 2011, when Leathers moved back to Durham, her hometown, for a dance-teaching position in the Durham Public Schools, after dancing in New York and pursuing graduate work at UNC-Greensboro. Both experiences edged her away from the stage and toward site-specific dance, though here again, she favors a different phrase: "site-responsive," which indicates that you're "inhabiting a space and responding to it, instead of just putting a preexisting thing in it."
Originally, SITES was a roving photography project. It's impossible to distill Leathers's creative output into a tidy phrase: she's a choreographer and performer, photographer and documentarian, arts organizer and dance educator.
"I was trying to relearn the city," she says. "I noticed all this change happening. I wanted to be in these transforming spaces, notice them, have conversations with them."
Leathers took artist friends on walking trips through Durham and asked them questions: "How do you feel about this space? How does it make you want to move?" Then she photographed them. These investigations evolved into durational performances across several Sundays, the most convenient day for artists to meet and engage their curiosities and concerns about downtown's rapid buildup, both in the studio and on-site. The construction pit, now sprouting a high-rise, at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish became a focal point of these concerns.
"Our goal was to be there as long as possible before being kicked out," Leathers says. "We never asked permission. It's like asking permission to take up space."
As in Ramsey's work at Liberty Arts, SITES artists experimented with exhausting a place. How long can a body learn the contours of a fence, a crevice, a wall, until the body gives out? They used objects to make their relationship to these transitional spaces more tangible. A rope serves as an "umbilical cord to the city, and to these sites," Leathers says. It's a through line, tethering dancers as they slide on the checkered Fishmongers floor or Leathers as she performs solo, "trance-like" work in places such as CCB Plaza and Arcana.
Seven years in, SITES stands out in Durham's independent dance scene not only in its commitment to site work, but also in its artistic ethos of attentive innovation. It asks how artists can integrate themselves into the city's changing infrastructure while also standing out, provoking unexpected encounters that blur the boundary between performer and audience.
Lately, Leathers's strategy is to step behind the scenes and give her platform to fellow artistic risk-takers—Anna Barker, Jody Cassell, Leathers's Northern High dance students—so she can "see it all come together." In January, Lee Moore Crawford led a community healing walk for the Ellerbe Creek Trail; attendees read poetry and made chalk drawings. Leathers documents these events as they unfold, and her photographs are an archive of independent performance and changing spaces in Durham. The this-for-that creative exchange models the exchanges Leathers wants to see happen around the work.
"I feel like there's so much in Durham right now that's forced," Leathers says. "SITES is a way of being in the city without forcing change, forcing development, forcing performance, forcing all of it."
"The choreographer, performer, and photographer Stephanie Leathers has run a site-specific performance series called SITES for a while now, which critiques and witnesses the cycle of development and gentrification here. Performances have happened in construction sites, skateboard parks, along chain-link fences, in long-abandoned restaurant spaces about to be reinvented, in municipal corridors. In November, Leathers asked Greensboro-based performer Ashlee Ramsey to perform in the gutted cavern of a textile mill that’s in an early stage of renovation. Very few people witnessed this performance, which took place late on a frigid night with a stiff wind blowing through the active construction site. Concrete foundations were piled with gravel and fill dirt, wrapped pallets of cinderblock were everywhere, scaffolding and strung shop lights dangled, plastic sheeting flapped the window holes. After two hours in there, you blew your nose and there were clots of red dust in the Kleenex.
Ramsey moved throughout the space with total commitment, thrashing her way out of a cardboard box atop a dirt pile, diving into gravel pits and climbing out of them on 2x4s, tracking furrows between poured-concrete floors as if they were frontiers. Leathers was almost as active, documenting the performance through photo and video. It was two unforgettable hours of haunting resistance. You ended up covered with dirt and half-frozen just to move around the buildings to watch the performance. Ramsey transferred some of her restless presence to you, through that. And then you took that restlessness back out into public and private space afterwards. And I haven’t lost that restlessness." -Chris Vitiello
"Stephanie Leathers: Sunday SITES (Various venues, various times) Local dance artists' preference for "unconventional" spaces—bars, warehouses, and so on—has become a hallmark of our scene. The enterprising interdisciplinary artist Stephanie Leathers has been at the forefront of this push, using her site-specific Sunday SITES series as a movement investigation into downtown development. This year, SITES became a generative platform for other local dance artists (including The Bipeds and Anna Barker) and audiences alike to consider how performance work fits into busy sidewalks and skate parks." -Michaela Dwyer
"Durham's most resourceful dance artists. In one room, Stephanie Leathers wound herself in ropes while performing a durational piece" -Michaela Dwyer
"As I climbed down beneath the street and into Arcana, everything seemed copacetic—except for the woman lying on the floor, almost motionless, in what appeared to be a giant clump of rotted nautical rigging.
This was dancer and choreographer Stephanie Leathers, who would spend the next four hours deliberately working through the possibilities of the ropes in this particular physical and social space, as Tom Rau sat with keyboards and consoles, filling the dim room with percolating, songful ambience.
Leathers's ongoing Sunday SITES project, which usually pops up in transient urban spaces on Sundays, makes the rapid pace of development its explicit context, asking, "How do we illuminate tensions between the human body and the civic landscape we're so rapidly revising?" But bringing the project to a destination like Arcana instead of a construction site or an empty storefront incisively altered the question, substituting the social landscape for the civic." -Brain Howe
"Stephanie Leathers has been investigating the rapid changes that development has imposed on the civic landscape through Sunday SITES, a series of weekend-afternoon performances in construction sites and public spaces across downtown Durham and surrounding communities." -Byron Woods
'Reminiscent of Trisha Brown’s seminal Roof Piece, which was performed across several rooftops in New York City in 1971 and photographed by Babette Mangolte, quadrants offered a new way for audience members—gathered along the railing of the adjacent The Durham Hotel’s rooftop bar—to see their city, through their own eyes as well as those of the performers." -Chris Vitiello
"There is memory and there is being in the now. “Home: the metamorphosis” encompasses both.
Performance art is ephemeral, and in its ephemerality, it reminds us of our mortality.
Though our city will be this way only once, let’s keep the je ne sais quoi." -Aaron Mandel