Stephanie Leathers
Monday, September 26, 6:30 p.m.
The Durham Hotel/The Viget building, Durham

There’s the city that you live in, with its buildings and roads, neighborhoods and commercial zones, power lines and signage. And then there’s the city in your mind and body: the feeling of your favorite café’s door handle in your hand, the park you loved that they dug up for a high-rise, the sounds that put you to sleep when you leave the bedroom windows open all night.

Durham-based choreographer, dancer, photographer, and artist Stephanie Leathers has been exploring the tension between those two cities—especially as rapid development in Durham ratchets it up—through a series of somewhat impromptu site-specific performances with a rotating ensemble of dancers and artists in construction sites and public spaces on Sunday afternoons.

Called SundaySITES, the series has accumulated over time to become a unique witnessing of and inquiry into urban change, civic improvement, gentrification, and all the other contested terms we deploy when a lot is razed and workers start pouring concrete footers.

Leathers’s project is expanding to include an evening-length, site-specific performance called Home: The Metamorphosis, premiering November 10–12 as part of the third season of Durham Independent Dance Artists, as well as quadrants, a pop-up performance that took place Monday evening on the roof of the Viget building in downtown Durham.

Reminiscent of Trisha Brown’s seminal Roof Piece, which was performed across several rooftops in New York City in 1971 and photographed by Babette Mangolte, quadrants offered a new way for audience members—gathered along the railing of the adjacent The Durham Hotel’s rooftop bar—to see their city, through their own eyes as well as those of the performers. The work was danced by Leathers and Kristin Taylor.

From the audience’s perspective, quadrants recalibrated the relative scale of the performers to the architecture around them. Leathers and Taylor seemed comparably sized to a crane about a mile away on the southern horizon behind them. When the dancers stood with their arms outstretched above their heads, facing the buildings around downtown’s central plaza and the Self Help building on Main Street, they seemed to physically address the entire heights of those buildings.

The performance area on top of the Viget building was small—a rooftop deck with a substantial railing around it. But the dancers seemed monumental at times, exerting their humanity among inanimate architectural forms. Leathers issued a firm reminder that buildings are made by people, that they don’t just spring up out of the ground. Even though a building registers almost like geography in one’s consciousness, people can still control what’s built where and, most important, why.

But Leathers is also expressing frustration with, and, at times, a sense of resignation toward development. Looming largest in the downtown landscape is a building that’s not yet there—the twenty-seven-story One City Center, which will be built upon the large dirt pit between Main and Parrish Streets. Almost twice the height of Durham’s current tallest building, the Hill Building that houses 21c Museum Hotel, the bland, glass monstrosity of One City Center will cast a thick and unprecedented shadow over much of downtown. Even more ominous is the outrageous rental rate for its luxury units.

Leathers and her SundaySITES performers have danced in that pit in recent weeks. For quadrants, she and Taylor leaned against the back railing of their rooftop stage for a pause within the middle of their performance, simply standing still and looking out over a vista on the verge of change. Perhaps they were remembering the makeshift park that the pit was dug out of, or the hideous but beloved green wall that was torn down there, or the footprint of the downtown Woolworth’s, a significant civil rights landmark soon to be replaced by a homogeneous lobby or a chain coffee place.

The dancers just stood there, motionless, for three or four minutes, holding the pause until its wistfulness became a kind of watchful defiance. Then the evening light changed, and they resumed moving.

Leathers timed quadrants very effectively to use that changing light. The performance began in full late-afternoon light and ended in evening twilight after the sun set (behind the Marriott, unfortunately). Over the course of the performance, lights came on in offices facing the plaza and along Main Street. Through the bright windows, people working late and cleaning crews beginning their night’s work were visible.

Their movement became part of the performance, adding a practical economic layer. These buildings may mar the landscape and replace history, but they are also homes and workplaces. It’s a nuanced and even contradictory dynamic.

Leathers and Taylor mostly moved in parallel lanes across their space, as if they were tracing a street grid. At times they held their arms out stiffly, with their hands pointing straight down to make a box shape with their bodies, the awkward profile of a building. Other times they planted their feet together and used their arms to hold poses that resembled construction cranes.

They rarely interacted, stoically passing each other in their back-and-forths, stepping forward, stopping, pivoting in place. When they did come together to make a combined figure with their bodies, it seemed incidental, like how you can’t choose your neighbors.

The sites in which Leathers’s November performance will take place have not yet been publicly announced, but she has been rehearsing in the currently vacant Main Street restaurant space that used to be Fishmonger’s, near Brightleaf Square. It’s intimate, almost personal compared to the open, civic arena of the Viget roof. Trust Leathers, however, to tease out the weave of one’s relationship to it and to transform it into a space for relational meditation on urban development and one’s own existence. In this continuing project, audience members are prompted to realize that they, too, are performers in public and private space, and are capable of their own transformations.