Heather Sultz is a performer, choreographer, and educator who has been creating movement studies from an early age. She’s performed with various dance companies around the world and presented her own choreography through her company SultzDance. She now specializes in site-specific work, exploring architectural and environmental spaces through the movement of the human body and is the Museum’s latest Creative in Residence.
We talked with Heather about her work and inspiration as she gears up to create and present a unique work for the Museum.
NBM Online: What led you to the work you do bringing together human movement and architecture or place?
Heather Sultz: Movement is the fundamental way that humans experience the world. Our physical bodies are our first instruments. My background as a dancer and choreographer leads me to see the world in terms of movement in space. I think of space in three layers—the space inside the body, the immediate space around the body (or the kinesphere), and the larger space of environment.
How we inhabit each of these spaces is my core interest. And to go further, how we affect the environment, how the environment affects us, and how can we make decisions about this relationship to enhance our communities.
On a more practical level, I was exposed to site-specific dance very early in my career, and was always one to want to explore spaces that might be seen as “forbidden”. I always want to climb up a wall, into a nook, down a stair banister. So I design projects where I get to do just that.
“You’d be surprised how many people just want to be given permission to play.”
NBM Online: Of course, dancing can be fun, but how do you encourage hesitant folks with no dance experience to participate with you?
Sultz: As we get older we lose our sense of play and experimentation with movement, and it’s my job as a movement facilitator to remind people how to play. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve developed techniques that are non-threatening and inclusive. You’d be surprised how many people just want to be given permission to play. We start with simple pedestrian movement, the movement of every day, and work into more complex situations. But it’s all structured from an appreciation of each individual, and an understanding that I am the guide, but I am learning along with everyone else. Respect and openness go a long way.
NBM Online: What do you expect to apply from your previous work to this residency?
Sultz: Each project is different, with different challenges, opportunities, and especially different communities. Yes, I do learn something new in every situation. Many times it’s how to more clearly communicate, or make the tasks more understandable. What works with one group may not work with another, and you have to have options to shift to.
I never know what to expect until I get a sense of a community of movers, which for me is the improvisation. I believe that as a teacher, you should be improvisational for each workshop or rehearsal, constantly shifting your approach to suit the situation. As an improvisational performer, this is where I live, and it’s the joy of the unknown.
NBM Online: Why would you encourage folks to participate in these opportunities with you at the National Building Museum?
Sultz: There really is something for everyone during my time at the National Building Museum. I’m going to be creating a performance event with local movers who are up for the schedule of rehearsals that we will have. For those who want to participate in movement work with me but don’t want to perform or can’t commit to the time, I have Keyhole workshops scheduled that are open to all and just an hour long. I’ll be doing an artist’s talk, explaining about the performance and my process, which will also have a bit of movement opportunity in it.
And then, of course, there’s viewing the final performance event, which I hope everyone comes to. I really think that whatever your interest in movement or architecture, there’s something you’ll be interested in during my two weeks.
NBM Online: Why is it important to help people better understand their physical relationship within the built environment?
Sultz: As I mentioned above, my core beliefs are that we affect the environment, the environment affects us, and we can we make decisions about this relationship to enhance our communities. All the work I do under my Keyhole Residencies banner is about these choices. How can we learn about designing spaces by moving through them and finding out what is possible? How do the spaces we inhabit daily make us feel, and do we notice? What could we do differently in using space, or designing space, to change our relationship to it?
“Many people don’t notice their environments at all. So the shift is profound.”
NBM Online: What feedback do you receive most from people after they participate in your workshop or performance?
Sultz: I am constantly blown away by feedback I receive. Many times people will say they are energized or enthused about a space after taking a workshop, or are seeing it in a completely different way. One corporate client said to me, after working with him in his office space, that he didn’t know it was possible to fall in love with his offices, but he had.
One reason I am always amazed at the responses is that for me, as a mover who has been doing this work a long time, I naturally see space as interesting, and I forget sometimes that many people don’t. Many people don’t notice their environments at all. So the shift is profound.
NBM Online: What do you hope to contribute to the Museum and local audiences through this residency?
Sultz: I hope that the people who participate in any of the events will have at least a moment of seeing differently, of noticing something that they hadn’t before, of having a sensory experience that is richer than they have in their daily lives, and that they take that new experience into their lives going forward. And I also hope, as many times happens, that people arrive as individuals but leave as a community of humans that have had an experience together. Part of what I’m hoping to impart is that we are all part of communities, however brief they last, throughout our days—we don’t travel alone.
NBM Online: You’ve expressed interest in and appreciation for the Museum’s historic building. What is it that appeals to you or inspires you about this building?
Sultz: The building itself is obviously grand and lovely, and I’m hoping to use some spaces that people don’t usually see as well as the Great Hall. But beyond that, I enjoy delving into the history of a place, and this building has an interesting past; and also learning about the construction and style of the building, and what the design was based on. Being a historic site gives me a lot to work with during this residency, and access to the collections will be invaluable.
NBM Online: Besides the National Building Museum, for what other iconic D.C. building or place would you love to create a site-specific movement piece?
Sultz: The US Naval Observatory appeals to me – I like the aspect of time and timekeeping and scientific instruments, and the campus as a circular footprint.
NBM Online: Have architects or other design professionals participated in your performances in the past? What was their experience like?
Sultz: I’ve worked with many architects and other design professionals. I actually had a former architect who is also a dancer in my company for a time. It’s a natural pairing—both disciplines deal with space and form. I was asked to hold a Keyhole workshop and speak on a panel for the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Architecture for Education, which that year met at the California College of the Arts campus. We had an amazing time—architects everywhere climbing on everything! I had thought that they would be a bit reserved, but no.
Once again, all they needed was permission to play. I think that design people readily make the connection between bodies moving in space and space built for bodies. We need each other.