The beauty of dance, for me, comes in the way in which it transcends barriers of language to communicate in a universal manner. It has the ability to embrace the emotional, the primal, and champion the importance of community and our shared experience. This core tenet is central to Heather Lang and Purdie Baumann’s experimental short Simulation which captures the pure sacredness of dance against the regal backdrop of New York’s One Hanson Place. The piece also operates, in its latter portion, as a homage to the musical stylings of Róisín Murphy and nightlife when it transitions into a colourful, light-driven spectacle. DN is delighted to premiere Simulation alongside a conversation with Lang where she discusses the film’s surprising evolution, the diversity she wanted to foster with her dance troupe, and the importance of location and costume in establishing the short’s communal sensibility.
Where did your creative journey begin in making Simulation?
The journey of making Simulation has been very profound. It was a passion project that turned into something much larger than we could’ve ever expected. So many artists came together to make this film possible. It’s humbling to think how much talent, thoughtfulness and time people contributed. It’s also very powerful, particularly post-Covid, to be able to make something with such a beautiful community and experience joyful collaboration with such special artists.
To give some context, Purdie Baumann and I are childhood besties, from the Chicago suburbs, who both moved to NYC when we were 18 years old. We have over 25 years of professional experience spanning Broadway, film\TV, commercial, experimental, fashion, opera, and dance. You name it, we’ve done it. Our shared experiences have given us a deep understanding of each other’s sensibilities and have influenced the way we work. We know how to vibe with each other and our fellow collaborators, take risks, work hard and have a swell time while doing it. Simulation feels symbolic in our friendship in that it’s the beginning of a new chapter in our artistic partnership.
Simulation all started in August 2022. Purdie has a dance company, the Sarafinas, and asked me to choreograph something for them. I said sure and started creating with my friend, dancer, and muse, Anna Marchisello and another fab dancer Nicole Freeman. When we completed the workshop, Purdie and I both instinctually felt let’s film this material in a more interesting location with slightly elevated costumes/fashion. We were thinking more like a choreography reel or just a little flavor of what we are about. Something lowkey and possibly shot on the iPhone. I have to cackle because it snowballed into something way more epic than originally planned.
And how did everything evolve? It’s such an expansive, polished piece. How did you arrive at conceiving that?
One of the first questions I ask myself a lot when creating is, “What would you make if you could do anything?” Because of my tumultuous relationship with dance, I tend to make things in the dark comedy realm. At this point though, I felt myself craving something more mystical, spooky, sexy, and inexplicable. After the pandemic, having two kids and two hip replacements, I was feeling a deep reverence for what my body could hold and do. I was having a sort of renaissance energy in regards to what dance has provided in my life. I was so humbled by what dance in its purest form could do. Dance is healing, ever knowing and can express way more than we can say. I love narrative, but felt drawn to the more moody abstract power of dance.
I want dance to be more visible, more of a cultural priority and I want people to dance more.
I wanted the world to take time to build, have an arc and clear journey, yet have an experimental feel, dance film feel, and music video feel all rolled into one. I wanted things to feel organic, unfurling like nature, yet have the fantasy energy of sci-fi. The club has also been a huge influence on my life and I wanted to pay homage to it. It saved me in a lot of ways. It is a sanctuary, a community, and a ritual. I felt this instinctual urge to make something radically beautiful and a celebration of life force. Overall, I want dance to be more visible, more of a cultural priority and I want people to dance more. So, I felt a strong desire to make something lots of folks could connect with.
What drew you to the music of Róisín Murphy for the film?
I am a huge fan of music artist Róisín Murphy. If you don’t know her, you’ve got to look her up ASAP. She really is the epitome of underground art scene/fashion/house music person. I use her music a lot when I choreograph and I have always loved the song Simulation. It just encapsulates the whole mood. So, I would say this is a love letter to dance, house music and Roisin.
How did you all work to bring these core concepts to fruition?
I shared these initial ideas with Purdie, Anna and another dear friend Kate Harpootlian. This is really my favourite part because this is when the thing actually can come to realisation. I am a firm believer in collaboration. A lot of creation is like a Ouija Board vibe. You all put your hands on the planchette and listen to what and where the project wants to go. I wrote a loose script or what I now call a ‘slop plop’ of the initial ideas. Then with incredible input, inquiry, and perseverance from all of these women, the film began to take shape. Roles became slightly more defined and we began to crystallize the vision. Overall, it was an ambitious idea and I still can’t believe we all said yes.
Kate, then introduced me to DP Jonathas Nazareth. It was so incredible to feel his curiosity and openness right away, even through a hazy description of what I envisioned. He had brilliant input. We passed inspiration back and forth for a while and I was like okay, he gets it. We all need trust when making and I knew I was in good hands. Both he and Kate were incredible at figuring out how to execute.
Simultaneously, Purdie and I knew that the location and costuming would be huge characters in the story and would really shape the whole piece. Purdie, the amazing communicator, visionary, and persistent producer really set out on the path of figuring out a location and what we were gonna wear. Purdie remembered meeting Marissa Santalla, Norma Kamali’s assistant and reached out to her. When Marissa responded that Norma would donate costumes, we about fell on the floor. Marissa, another dream of a human was so open and helped us shape the arc of the costumes.
You mentioned there about the location, how did you source such a grand-looking locale?
The location journey was wild. I felt that we needed to find a NYC dance club that had multiple spaces since it was a homage to the club. This is a tall order because renting a club is not the easiest thing. We had another location we were working with, but in the end, we couldn’t get all the shots done in the amount of hours with our budget. Yet again, another brilliant friend Leah Hoffman suggested One Hanson Place because she lived on the residential side. The building is actually The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower from 1929. After many conversations with the building we worked something out. It was really a moment for me that is out of this world. The space is beyond gorgeous, grandiose and church-like. It reminded me of the Limelight Club from NYC.
While things were taking shape in the other departments we were trying to figure out what equipment we would be using. Another, stellar human, friend, producer and manager at Milk Studios, Shaun Murdock, saw the treatment and storyboard and immediately wanted to be a part of the project. Shaun, Jon, and Kate guided us through what equipment would be necessary. I still can’t believe we got to shoot on an Arri Alexa.
I knew that the location and costuming would be huge characters in the story and would really shape the whole piece.
And in terms of the dancing, can you explain the process of construction of the choreography together with Anna?
Anna has the ability to synthesize any idea. So, when creating, it’s a lot of bliss because she can make the moment inside any movement very complicated and exquisite all at once. So, there is a deep synergy with us and as she says we are “down to clown”. Meaning the channels are open! The film began to take shape in three acts we named Call to Action, Rabbit Hole, and The Ritual. First, we started building all kinds of vignettes and material that was for two to four people. We were using this idea that if one person is missing the thing cannot be whole, like gears or a kaleidoscope. Things were revealed quickly when we were building. Inside the material we saw nature, sacred geometry, ecosystems, mycelium, ammonites, fractals, antennas, fish gills and so on.
The timing of things was important. I wanted slowness, which has a bit to do with my exhaustion of social media and TikTok. Also, it’s funny to mention that most of my direction on set in regards to the “Call to Action” section was to go slower. Another element that was important was to be able to build things that could be used in any nook or space and sort of cut and pasted. We weren’t able to rehearse in the space beforehand so we had to make sure that the material could transfer anywhere. When we got with the whole cast, we taught folks some of the choreography, as well as some people built things on their own based off of the choreography they saw, imagery, and ideas we shared. I also love structured improv and it’s a big part of my practice. So, it’s usually an element inside of everything I make.
Rabbit Hole was a bit tricky because it was so dependent on the space and After Effects. This part really came together in a rehearsal with Jon. Kate had the brilliant idea that Zojea would be the character to break the fourth wall. Then Jon had the idea Zojea could actually lead the camera to the different folks in the Rabbit Hole.
How long were you able to shoot for in One Hanson Place? And how painful or painless was the shoot?
After hashing out equipment, the shot list, and budget we had to shoot everything in one day. Since Jon and Kate had recently worked together, they had a wonderful crew they introduced us to. It was amazing to feel that everyone was so game and ready to do this hefty order.
The day of the shoot felt magical. We were as prepped as we could be and everyone was just vibing and flowing and collaborating. Overall, I’m so blown away by everyone’s ability to pivot and focus. Jon came in with some amazing surprises, like the crystal he decided to bust out when we were shooting the Rabbit Hole section! Ahhhh! It was such a great moment. The cast and crew were giving “A” game and Kate managed to get every last shot in. It was a miracle.
Simulation has such a rhythm to it, which has a lot to do with how it all syncs up to the music. How was that process of assembling everything so that it all connected?
Post was quite an adventure. There was a lot of After Effects and so much of the piece was based off the music. So, it quite literally was a dance between understanding how this world was going to build, what was the footage telling us, and how to make it musical. Very grateful for Anna’s dance background, because she has a great sense of musicality. Anna and I sat with that beginning footage for a long time and delicately sifted through it. We knew we wanted to hold the tension and have the character and mood slowly activate. We wanted everything in the world to feel organic but simultaneously feel preordained. Overall, she created an incredible balance of the mirrored aspects and ramps to enhance the ceremonious call to action. I wanted references to fractals, ammonites, and sacred geometry. It was luscious and then some. I absolutely love it.
We knew we wanted to hold the tension and have the character and mood slowly activate.
Jon worked on the Rabbit Hole section and I loved how he made a real Alice in Wonderland vibe. I originally had the idea of kaleidoscopic/Sistine Chapel energy once they go through the blue door, but instead it became something way more creature feature than I could have ever imagined. Jon discovered something late night in post. It was absolutely bonkers and exactly what the film needed. They look like cyborg, insect, alien orifices. It’s hypnotic. We decided the music needed a trippy-going-thru-the-portal energy, so we slowed it down. Every time I watch it I just drool.
Once they come out of the k-hole it enters a more human quality. This last section was easier and harder in some ways I think because we had fewer shots of this, because they were at the end of the day. Again, with Anna’s musicality and Jon’s camera work she was able to create such a ROYGBIV celebratory dance party. Overall, I couldn’t be more stoked about what we accomplished with barely a budget. It’s not something I will do again in that short amount of turn around though, that is for sure! I learned a lot and I’m always deeply humbled. Also, shout out to the colorist Kevin. I still say I could eat the footage it’s so extravagant.
Final question, where will your work be taking you next?
As far as what’s next, we have a bunch of pots cooking and it’s super exciting. We have a few immersive theatrical projects in development we can’t say much about yet, but be on the lookout. There are some short films that we are working on scheduling too. We are also creating a NYC dance show that spawned from Simulation. It’s about reclaiming our stories and joy in our bodies through dance and feminine power. Using intricate projection design to enhance the choreography, elaborate costuming, set design, and live music, we plan to take the audience on a moody, intuitive, visual splendor!