Award-winning director and choreographer Stephan Koplowitz never could be confined to traditional spaces. Even though he knew early on that he wanted to choreograph, he didn’t take it as a given that his dances should be presented in theaters. He appreciated the genius of Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, and Merce Cunningham—pioneers of staging dances in alternative spaces. “I never thought of my work as public art,” he said in a recent phone conversation. “I just thought of what dance could do in a public arena. I love to connect people to art. I want audiences to see a site as they’ve never seen it before.”
One of the leading exponents of multimedia, site-specific performance, Koplowitz has been lauded for his incursions into Grand Central Station, London’s Natural History Museum, the British Library, the Los Angeles Metro, and a coal factory in Essen, Germany. “What draws me to a site is the wow factor,” he said. “I can be inspired by its history, architecture, design, how it’s used, and the public’s view of the site.”
Since 1984, he has choreographed for windows, swimming pools, staircases, various museums, parks, fountains, train stations, churches, government buildings, tennis courts, rivers, beaches, an air force fighter jet, a pier, a seaport, and public sculptures, including a Calder stabile. He has also created permanent public art in the Center for New Media on the campus of Salt Lake Community College, called Light Camera Action. An array of three camera obscuras tethered to HD video, which then broadcasts to three monitors, it is a descendant of his original camera obscura project that was installed at the World Financial Center and MASS MoCA in 2006.
“I am struck by how skillfully Koplowitz articulates the space. I want the dancers to keep at this longer so I can ponder human architecture and the witty illusion of harmony and cooperation in a space that resonates with our own restlessness,” writes Deborah Jowitt, a critic at the Village Voice, of his Grand Step Project in 2004, which featured dancers and choral groups on New York City staircases.
As dean of the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles since 2006, Koplowitz has taught hundreds of students the logistics and aesthetics involved in bringing performance to audiences in public spaces. “In this kind of work,” he says, “fifty percent of our time is spent on learning how to fund-raise and produce and fifty percent on creating the performance.” Now not only his students at CalArts but also thousands of people from around the world can study the subject and connect with one another through his online course, “Creating Site-Specific Dance and Performance Works,” on the Coursera platform. He initiated it in the fall of 2013 and is offering it again this fall.
An overnight hit, the 2013 course drew thousands of applicants, with 148 countries represented. Artists from theater, the visual arts, dance, music, and film signed up. A young artist from Egypt was inspired by the class to start a large-scale sculpture project in the Sinai Desert and used the course as the basis of her proposal to a foundation. Vermont-based choreographer Joy Madden signed up that year, finding that during its six weeks, the course gave her a deep understanding of the field. “We got into everything from insurance and licenses to assignments to document two of our own site-specific works,” she says. “One of the best things about the course is that we had to grade other people’s projects, and of course, ours were graded too. I looked at work from South Africa, Colombia, and San Diego, all of it dealing with entirely different issues than mine. You learn so much that way.” Since taking the course, she has presented events in an art gallery and on a farm.
Of course, nothing beats joining Koplowitz on a project. When he did his work at London’s Natural History Museum, he took inspiration from Darwin’s theory of evolution, focusing on how emotions evolved. Choreographer/dancer Samantha Lyons, who took part in the performance, says, “It was the most innovative, inspiring, and thought-provoking time in my creative life.”
This summer he taught at the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston, Maine, for the sixth year. Inspired by the city’s environment, immigration history, industry, and architecture, he began working with several students on creating a film that could be woven into a live performance relating to the city’s particular character, asking them to delve into archives and study the buildings and landscape. Dancer Josh Hines worked with Koplowitz at Bates. “Steve gives you a lot of freedom,” he says. “He doesn’t want dancey stuff, like leaps and turns. He wants pedestrian movement that shows the artistry of the human body without embellishing it. Through simplicity, he exposes the humanity and poetry of the site as well as of the human body.”