One frigid night last November, as a part of Stephanie Leathers's SITES project, the performer Ashlee Ramsey slithered around Golden Belt's Liberty Arts complex while it was under renovation, with exposed columns, concrete divots, and piles of dirt.
"She used every inch of that big warehouse," Leathers remembers. "She used materials that I would have never thought of using. There were holes in the ground that she would jump into. She was licking dirt and spitting it out. She was eating the site, ingesting it. I wish all of Durham could have seen that."
Ramsey will return to investigate another warehouse, the Fruit, this Friday, along with about twenty others who have worked with Leathers in SITES, her multidisciplinary creative platform, which places artists in conversation with Durham's changing urban landscape. Celebrate SITES will function as a two-hour open laboratory for this group of artists as they "find solutions to being in [the Fruit's] giant space."
The event's location, a fixed venue rather than a transient site, is an invitation for Durhamites to intentionally witness the work Leathers has both performed in and championed for the past several years—work they're usually more apt to stumble across in bars, skate parks, or empty storefronts.
Leathers is sitting in the lobby of Unscripted Durham, a fitting place in which to recount the history of the project formerly known as Sunday SITES. Just after the 2016 election, in Home: the metamorphosis, Leathers and a group of local performers crawled across the chain-link construction fence on West Parrish Street and beckoned the crowd down Main Street, across the railroad tracks, and into the dusty shell of Fishmonger's (now Saint James Seafood). It's difficult to think of a place SITES artists haven't touched; drop a pin for each of their events—Leathers prefers "experiences" over "performances"—and you'd have a map of key sites in Durham's post-2010 development.
SITES began around 2011, when Leathers moved back to Durham, her hometown, for a dance-teaching position in the Durham Public Schools, after dancing in New York and pursuing graduate work at UNC-Greensboro. Both experiences edged her away from the stage and toward site-specific dance, though here again, she favors a different phrase: "site-responsive," which indicates that you're "inhabiting a space and responding to it, instead of just putting a preexisting thing in it."
Originally, SITES was a roving photography project. It's impossible to distill Leathers's creative output into a tidy phrase: she's a choreographer and performer, photographer and documentarian, arts organizer and dance educator.
"I was trying to relearn the city," she says. "I noticed all this change happening. I wanted to be in these transforming spaces, notice them, have conversations with them."
Leathers took artist friends on walking trips through Durham and asked them questions: "How do you feel about this space? How does it make you want to move?" Then she photographed them. These investigations evolved into durational performances across several Sundays, the most convenient day for artists to meet and engage their curiosities and concerns about downtown's rapid buildup, both in the studio and on-site. The construction pit, now sprouting a high-rise, at the corner of Corcoran and Parrish became a focal point of these concerns.
"Our goal was to be there as long as possible before being kicked out," Leathers says. "We never asked permission. It's like asking permission to take up space."
As in Ramsey's work at Liberty Arts, SITES artists experimented with exhausting a place. How long can a body learn the contours of a fence, a crevice, a wall, until the body gives out? They used objects to make their relationship to these transitional spaces more tangible. A rope serves as an "umbilical cord to the city, and to these sites," Leathers says. It's a through line, tethering dancers as they slide on the checkered Fishmongers floor or Leathers as she performs solo, "trance-like" work in places such as CCB Plaza and Arcana.
Seven years in, SITES stands out in Durham's independent dance scene not only in its commitment to site work, but also in its artistic ethos of attentive innovation. It asks how artists can integrate themselves into the city's changing infrastructure while also standing out, provoking unexpected encounters that blur the boundary between performer and audience.
Lately, Leathers's strategy is to step behind the scenes and give her platform to fellow artistic risk-takers—Anna Barker, Jody Cassell, Leathers's Northern High dance students—so she can "see it all come together." In January, Lee Moore Crawford led a community healing walk for the Ellerbe Creek Trail; attendees read poetry and made chalk drawings. Leathers documents these events as they unfold, and her photographs are an archive of independent performance and changing spaces in Durham. The this-for-that creative exchange models the exchanges Leathers wants to see happen around the work.
"I feel like there's so much in Durham right now that's forced," Leathers says. "SITES is a way of being in the city without forcing change, forcing development, forcing performance, forcing all of it."