The Award-Winning KC Filmmaker Captures Dancers Improvising in Selected Local Settings in “Pause,” Created with an Art Where You’re At Grant from the Charlotte Street Foundation
A feeling, a question, a moment: These are some of the concepts filmmaker Elizabeth Stehling explores in her work.
Stehling is one of ten awardees of the Charlotte Street Foundation’s Art Where You’re At: Social Distant Art Projects grant created in response to the lockdowns due to COVID-19.
In “PAUSE,” created for Art Where You’re At, Stehling examined her own experience — as an artist and new mother of nine-month-old son Ezzy, sequestered from friends, colleagues and family — and explored the idea of “What if?”
“What if a dancer, what if a film, could mimic this whole uncertainty? Or embody how we all keep trying to go forward, and then we have to stop?” she said. “Go forward a little bit and then . . . we have to do something else? This sort of ridiculousness of trying to plan things and control things.”
A former Charlotte Street Foundation Studio Resident, Stehling has created works for Art in the Loop, Plug Projects and the Kansas City Art Institute. Previous honors include the Robert Altman Emerging Artist Award and the KC FilmFest International 2020 Best Heartland Documentary Award.
Stehling is originally from South Carolina. She moved to Kansas City in 2015 with a background in visual art (including painting, printmaking and photography), a fondness for filming movement, and a touch of dance experience, since her mother is a dancer and dance teacher.
Her work is more familiar than one might realize; as digital marketing manager for the Kansas City Ballet, she shares the process of dance creation and experience on the Ballet’s digital media.
With KC Ballet, she usually has a plan for how the video will be used, she said, for either marketing or education. “I always try to think about the audience, what will capture their interest.”
But she’s careful not to editorialize. “I quiet the outside world and get involved with what I’m seeing,” she explained. “There’s a challenge in understanding what the choreographer wants to be seen.”
Her approach is necessarily different for her own projects. “My artwork usually stems from wanting to understand a complexity of my reality that I can’t quite fully grasp.”
For “PAUSE,” Stehling served as director, camera operator, location scout, producer and editor. Given the grant’s prompt, the work was filmed in locations close to her Hyde Park home, places she had ventured in neighborhood walks with her dog and baby, specifically the Pilgrim Labyrinth & Butterfly Garden and the grounds of the Anita B. Gorman Conservation Discovery Center.
She worked with five dancer/choreographers, artists with improvisational skills and mental flexibility, each bringing a different style and sensibility to the project: Kyle Mullins, Haley Kostas, Joshua Bodden, Jen Owen and Irene Vallar.
“(They are) people who are game for experimentation and up for anything,” she said, as there was no way to predict exactly how the process would take shape amid the year’s chaos and uncertainty.
Though she filmed everyone separately and socially distanced, she edited the film to bring the dancers together on screen, exploring the inherent harmony and dissonance of their unique, improvised movements. In that way, the editing also became part of the dance.
She also worked with musician/composer Stacy Busch. During filming, Stehling used a chopped-up version of Busch’s musical composition “Breath Beat” to signal sudden stops and starts for each dancer’s movement. For the final cut, Busch arranged and reimagined the original work.
Stehling chose this piece both musically and symbolically: Its elements are all generated through mouth sounds, with whooshes, tocks and tongue clicks, organic and natural. Though written a few years ago, the work resonated with Stehling, in terms of how our breath relates to the realities of “the virus and the stress of everything.”
Her work, like that of most artists, was interrupted when in-person performance shut down in March. “I think everyone was just a little stunned with everything that was going on. In some ways, though, it’s been an awakening. It’s been a big shift toward how we communicate our art,” said Stehling.
The need for other mechanisms quickly became a focus for many artists. “The live performance is being translated into this digital world with a lot of technology that we haven’t even fully used . . . people are figuring out new ways to use things. “That’s really exciting, but it’s taken a moment to wrap our heads around everything and all the changes.”
This latest work is also an interesting contrast to her most recent endeavor. “Running” is a collage of individuals running full tilt through Kansas City scenes. “That was all about anxiety and taking flight and trying to keep up with this pace of production.”
Six months into the reality of pandemic existence, our pace and our anxieties are ever shifting.
“It just feels like we are required to pause. Our lives have just been, for whatever reason, good or bad, just in a state of suspense, or suspension.”