New South Philly dance piece inspired by Philadelphia paintings

Leah Stein Dance Company’s “Close to Home" is a new performance created in collaboration with the Woodmere Art Museum.

 Leah Stein Dance Company’s “Close to Home,” which runs at The Art Room Studio, 2329 S. 3rd Street, is a new performance created in collaboration with the Woodmere Art Museum. Above: Dancers record a conversation about Neff’s paintings that will be integrated into the sound score. (Image special to SPR)

Performing artists are drawing inspiration from the paintings of Edith Neff and pouring it into the streets of Whitman. 

In her latest production, contemporary dancer Leah Stein, whose company is based at 3rd and Ritner streets, has crafted another installment in her series of site-specific works.

Produced through the FringeArts festival, “Close to Home,” which runs through Sept. 29 at The Art Room Studio, 2329 S. 3rd St., is a new performance created in collaboration with the Woodmere Art Museum.

The piece, featuring nine local dancers, serves as a counterpart to the museum’s current exhibition surrounding Neff, a social realist painter of the 20th century who captured the social landscapes of Philadelphia.

“As much as her representation of Philadelphia, people’s experiences in the performance – it’s their connection to different parts of Philadelphia,” Stein said. 

Choreography for the intimate production, which unfolds both in the second-floor studio and on the sidewalk of South 3rd Street, is primarily derived from Neff’s extensive collection.

Though the dances aren’t based upon certain paintings in particular, the overarching movement attempts to grasp the essence of her work, which also includes portraits and images of family life. 

“She’s showing an image but I don’t feel like she’s saying, ‘Look at it this way,’ ” Stein said. “So, I’m interested, too, in the performers’ own interpretation… and then also their own voices about their own experiences with their families and in the city. So, there’s a real layering.”

For Stein, the mission of “Close to Home” was translating the painting’s story outside of its frame and into a performance.

She strived to use contemporary dance as a medium to elevate the paintings with new dimensions, as the movement almost acts as a prequel and sequel to the point in time captured in the image.  

“They’re people in a moment. It’s a moment in time that is captured in time in this painting,” she said. “But, there’s a lot of movement and you feel like, ‘Wow, there’s so much that happened before to get to this moment, and we know that there’s a lot happening afterwards.’ ”

From paintings depicting swimming pools in Hunting Park to playgrounds in Center City, Neff’s interpretations of Philadelphia mirror Stein’s own site-specific inventiveness.

Whether inside gardens or cemeteries, Stein’s performances have sprouted in a scope of spaces across the city over the last 25 years.

Some of her other works have taken over Eastern State Penitentiary, Christ Church Burial Ground, Longwood Gardens,  Fairmount Water Works and Girard College Chapel.One piece, “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 music, singing from a nearby window.

“I guess, my work, I’m so interested in our relationship with our surroundings and using performance as a vehicle to activate that connection even more – not to separate,” Stein said. “I love performances in theater…But my work is about how the interrelationship of this person moving in this way and then this whole building over there where they lived. All of these layers of our lives that sometimes we just aren’t aware of or don’t give value to.” 

In preparing her dancers, Stein encouraged performers to unravel these layers of their personal lives based on themes frequently recurring in Neff’s work, including self-awareness, family and Philadelphia. 

In dissecting dancers’ relationship with Neff, the performers recorded their spoken thoughts as they viewed the paintings. 

The recordings were then woven into the show’s sound design.  

“I really trust Leah’s process,” said “Close to Home” performer Shannon Brooks. “She trusts the nothingness. She trusts the intuition. She allows there for magic to seep in, and slowly, she sees things and she allows them to repeat and to become structure for more magic to seep in. It’s been a wonderful process of laying and investing and allowing your personal self to go on top of your experiences.”

Brooks says the production intends to evoke the personal and public Philadelphian experiences of audiences, too. As dancers flush out methods used to investigate their own relationships with the city, hopefully others will follow.

The production’s complexities work to act as an agency within the viewer, providing a source of compassion, stillness and, perhaps, peace.

“I was able to feel more connected to Philly through the paintings,” Brooks said. “I recognize that architecture. I know that stoop in South Philly. It all felt familiar, and I think it was due to this base that we all share. This bodily understanding of personal and public space from your past.”

In January, “Close to Home” will perform at the closing of Woodmere’s exhibition “Our Town: A Retrospective of Edith Neff.”

Though the production will be transposed to a new space, it will retain its intrinsic mission.  

“Especially with figure work, I’m very interested in the body in the painting and then the body in real life,” Stein said.  “And how our bodies – what we’re communicating physically in a moment, in a performance and how it brings to life different aspects of the still painting…how can the painting bring new life to movement in the body?” 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano