A long black garment draped over Stefanie Batten Bland’s body as she stood in the stillness of a saltwater pond at Long Point Wildlife Refuge. She moved with an effortless elegance, taking slow and contemplative steps, moving in and out of sync with gentle gusts of wind and rippling waves. Sparse and drawn-out sounds from a violin steered the motion and mood of her afternoon performance. She represented a figure of history, nature, and divinity. “I Am Here,” she spelled in the sand with her bare toes. She danced the story of voyage and arrival along the African American Heritage Trail.
A New York City dancer and choreographer, Ms. Batten Bland came to Martha’s Vineyard the last week of September to explore first stages of her project “Embarked.” She performed on a Friday afternoon for an intimate crowd under a bold sun, with a cool September breeze coming off the Atlantic. Ms. Batten Bland teamed up with her former dance troupe, the Yard, and The Trustees of Reservations to bring her site-specific vision to life.
The idea for the project came about last year when she was at Cronig’s Market.
“I saw a book on the heritage trail, so I just picked it up,” she said. “The project began, as most things do, as a conversation that led to more conversations, that led to some really wonderful exploration into our past.”
Ms. Batten Bland told the Times that she sought out historians and learned more about the stories and people of the Heritage Trail. There are 27 sites all over the Island, and each tells a different story of people of color on Martha’s Vineyard.
“Because this is an Island that celebrates space, and is so aware of what space of place is, it made sense to celebrate those who got to come here before I did,” Ms. Batten Bland said.
Ms. Batten Bland performed at Long Point Refuge and at Inkwell Beach. Yard troupe member, educator, and violinist Leah Crosby accompanied Ms. Batten Bland’s Long Point performance.
“What makes a landmark?” Ms. Batten Bland asked. “They celebrate culture and community, and I want to explore what that really means.”
Ms. Batten Bland broke up her performance into different stages that represented various African American struggles during the voyage. She began the Long Point performance waist-deep in the water, wearing a sheer black garment that fit her like a dress.
“The fabric of this,” she said, gesturing to the garment, “can give you a royal feel. I wanted to celebrate what these women were, and turn them into what they were treated as.”
In the second phase of Ms. Batten Bland’s performance, she danced in the sand, and twirled the garment off of her body as it changed form from dress into net. It hid her face and figure. She distorted her body, and displayed it like she was something to be sold.
“That was the idea of erasure really taking place,” she said. “Voiding the person of self.”
In the third phase of the performance, the garment took the form of a traditional African American headscarf, representing total resistance to loss of self-definition. The performance ended with Ms. Batten Bland marching to the distance, delicately holding the garment in front of her with both hands.
“It’s what I imagine would be a continuation onto the next waves of that person’s life,” she said. “Leaving a clear mark for people to follow.”
As a descendant of many races — and she notes that we all are — Ms. Batten Bland believes Martha’s Vineyard was the right place to begin exploring such a project. “Massachusetts was one of the first states to abolish slavery and allow people to own property,” she said. “There was something unique going on here in the northern areas that wasn’t going on anywhere else. People started to feel valued, found reason and way of being, and as a result, they could do anything.”
Her long term goal is to bring her New York City dance troupe to Martha’s Vineyard for a performance along the trail. She hopes to work at different sites, and bring them to life in their own way, so that each story can be told.
“All of this history merits being seen,” she said. “And I believe that is the goal of a landmark.”
To find out more about Stefanie Batten Bland and her projects, visit companysbb.org.