Local dancer known for unusual stagings receives Pew grant

Leah Stein, the founder behind a Whitman-based dance company, reflects on a life of performance.

Dancer and choreographer Leah Stein rehearses in her Whitman-based studio, featuring props she used in past and future works. (Grace Maiorano/South Philly Review)

From prisons to parking lots, Leah Stein’s performances have sprouted in spaces across the city.

In her eyes, these places — sometimes outdoors, sometimes not — all possess some level of Bardo — a Buddhist idea about suspended time known as “the in between.”

“I feel like that’s what these spaces are — they’re in between,” she said. “I started to really notice what Philadelphia’s urban landscape was, and I was really interested in those places between buildings … touching on past and present and future.”

Stein, a resident of Dickinson Square West, has spent the last 25 years producing dozens of site-specific works, finding such limbo in the sights and sounds of unusual stages.

“Hoist,” featuring dancers Jungwoong Kim, Michele Tantoco and David Konyk— Photo by Michael Bartmann/Special to South Philly Review

Most recently, Stein, whose nonprofit Leah Stein Dance Company is based at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, was named as one of the 12 fellows for this year’s Pew Center for Arts and Heritage grants.

The funding for fellows, along with 33 other projects, totals more than $8.7 million.

With the grant, Stein says she has a few plans in mind, some of which derive from new sources of inspiration. But, most intentions stem from remnants of previous experiences, as recently, the dancer reflected upon the cornerstones of her choreography.

Immersing in dance as a child in Hudson Valley, N.Y., Stein recalls the infancy of her intimacy with sceneries, remembering roaming into farmlands during her formative years.

“(The area) was really significant for me — the landscape there, and how much freedom I had as a child and a young dancer,” she said.

While she was encouraged to follow a ballet-centric course, Stein felt inclined toward another route, as she was heavily influenced by classes from renowned tap dancer Brenda Bufalino.

So, instead, Stein headed to Wesleyan University in Connecticut where she studied dance and anthropology.

Finding a focus on Eastern dance, Stein was thunderstruck by the everyday entwinement of art in foreign countries.

“I just felt like dance is such a part of culture,” she said. “And I was interested in where it lives and cultures all over the world — not just where I was from, and that was very enriching.”

After college, she relocated to West Philly where she continued her contemporary and choreography training at Susan Hess Modern Dance and the Community Education Center.

In 1990, through a grant from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, Stein journeyed to Indonesia where she studied music and movement in Central Java, including a trip to Bali.

While there, she once again tapped into the stimulus of her surroundings.

“(In Indonesia,) art and life are so deeply intertwined … and that’s my belief. And, that’s how we as humans are,” she said. “Art is a natural human need and expression.”

Later, Stein embarked on a cross-country adventure where she came across Native American rituals nestled in the Southwest mesas. She felt moved as tribes fostered elaborate connections with their environment.

For years, Stein produced indoor works inspired by such outdoors sites, but, she says, after following the “indoor, outdoor” pattern, she felt ready to shift this cycle.

“I just decided I wanted to make work outside, because I had just been so inspired by the landscape for so long, different landscapes,” she said.

In 1993, her first outdoor opus, “Departure” occupied fields along Monastery Stables at Fairmount Park.

Partnering with renowned percussionist Toshi Makihara, Stein says the duo created a sound-movement continuum without even meaning to. The pair, who would come to partner in works together across the world, created not solely a performance but an experience for audience members who wound up encircled by the dancers at the end of the show.

“I just started to explore — how much interaction can there be?” Stein asked. “The space had a little definition with natural elements, and the music and sound is what catalyzed it.”

In the nearly three decades since, Stein seized cavities across the city, including creating more than 50 site-specific works just since the inception of her company in 2001.

“battle hymns” featuring dancers Michele Tantoco and Jumatatu Poe and the San Fransisco Choral Society. Photo special to South Philly Review

Her original work has popped up in places such as Eastern State Penitentiary, Christ Church Burial Ground, Longwood Gardens and the Fairmount Water Works. In other ventures, Stein’s rendition of “Carmina Burana” entailed dancers descending on ropes in Girard College Chapel.

One piece, fittingly titled “Bardo,” took over an empty lot opposite the Kimmel Center in 2005, which involved the show crossing Broad Street as a vocalist flooded the scene with arias, singing from a nearby window as the sun set.

“The space is the partner, so it gives the ideas … it’s the movement that’s generated from the experience of being in a place,” Stein said.

While movement has always been her bent, lately, Stein has been incorporating “deep listening” into her work — a practice she’s adopted from composer Pauline Oliveros. Along with Oliveros, Stein has been weaving several composers’ work into her recent shows, including commissioned scores from musicians such as Pulitzer-prize winning composer David Lang.

A major performance landmark, Stein staged “Battle Hymns” at the 23rd Street Armory, which featured Lang’s original work and the Mendelssohn Club.

Following the passing of her father a few years ago, Stein presented a homage to him, “Bellows Falls” at the Iron Factory, which was set to the sounds of clanking railroad pieces — a reminder of her home.

“Bellows Falls,” featuring Leah Stein. Photo by Michael Bartmann/Special to South Philly Review

“I really worked with the deep listening practice as a new foundation for healing, really, and then generating ideas in movement and voice,” she said. “I think I’ve always been a deep listener … in a way things just kind of cycled and come back, but it still does feel like a turning point of maybe just going deeper.”

Stein is building upon this listening technique in her two upcoming works with the grant. The first, “Standing in the Wake,” contains residue of loss — the premise of “Bellows Falls.”

Another is extracted from a previous exhibit at the Woodmere Art Museum called “A More Perfect Union? Power, Sex and Race in the Representation of Couples,” which aims to explore the various level connections between two individuals, especially amid today’s political climate.

For Stein, this concept aligns with the art she’s observed and assembled for many years.

“At the heart of my work, I feel like, is humanity,” she said. “A respect for humanity.”