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'Celestial Real Estate' Combines Performance and Visual Art to Explore Sunlight

Amplify Arts

A new exhibition at the Generator Space, part of local nonprofit Amplify Arts, combines live performance with a gallery installation to explore the properties and ownership of sunlight. In “Celestial Real Estate,” choreographer Lauren Simpson brings together local artists Nick Miller, Celeste Butler, Dereck Higgins and Simpson's dance partner Galen Rogers. The exhibition is accompanied by five live performances that will take place over the course of four weeks.

"Celestial Real Esate" opened at Generator Space Gallery on Vinton Street on March 25 and will remain through April 11. Simpson and Rogers's live dance performances to accompany the exhibition will take place on April 9, 10 and 11.

Let's start by talking about the actual creative process behind “Celestial Real Estate.” Essentially, this was passed from one artist to the next, right? It started with Nick Miller, who did a lot of the paint work in the gallery who passed it to fiber artist Celeste Butler, who passed it to musician Dereck Higgins before you started the choreography part. So can you summarize the actual creative process and what the project looked like when it got into your hands?

Yes, this kind of process is brand new to me, and I'm very excited about it. I would liken the process to an exquisite corpse drawing, where you fold a piece of paper into thirds or fourths, and someone does the top panel and then they unfold it. And then they continue the drawing from there, and then they unfold it again. And sort of the final product is a product of everybody's contribution. And so for this, the first panel, so to speak, was Nick, and Nick paints with traditional paint, but also duct tape, and he painted this fabulous interior of the Generator Space Gallery on Vinton Street. And so when he was done — or at least his drawings and renderings were done — we passed that to Celeste, and Celeste Butler made these exquisite costumes. And then from her ideas and Nick's ideas, we passed those things off to Dereck, and then he was able to think about some sound composition.

All of the artists got the same prompt, which is to think about sunlight and the way sunlight is in relationship to their work — or, if they hadn't thought about that before, how might it affect their work. And so there's a thread thematically, but as a choreographer, I'm the last person in the sequence of artists who are contributing to the project. So to be honest, I haven't even started the choreography yet. That begins at the end of this week. But it has been freeing and exciting for me, because typically, a choreographer will start out with movement, and everything will flow from there. So you begin with choreographic ideas, you begin with movement themes, and then a concept emerges. And then you commission the visual artists, the costume designers, the musicians, and say, “This is what I want you to do in service of this final vision.” And usually that is — that's the way I've always worked, and there's usually great results from that. 

But I think, you know, specifically in the pandemic, and COVID, I knew we couldn't all be in the room together working and collaborating and kind of finetuning what our final vision would be as collaborators. So I just said to each individual, “You start and make something that feels good on its own. And then when you're done, we'll have the next artist look at that and work in response to that, and then make something that stands on its own.”

Have you done a project like this before? You're not going in blind exactly, but it seems to be more spontaneous, maybe than things you've worked on in the past.

I have an improvisational background. I think a lot of musicians could identify with this, which is you just are in an improvisational practice, and then the time you go on stage is just a version of the practice that you do. And so I will rely on that, I think, in this process. However, I do love choreography. I love setting things. I love dancing with my partner Galen (Rogers), and he and I will come to agreement and we will make movements that are either in unison, or fast, or he does something [then] I do something — where we play off of each other. He'll be driving in from California next week, and then we'll just work intensely every day up until the show. Then what we have by the show is what it will be. But he's a very experienced dancer and improviser, and I'm just confident with all the artists who have come before us and what they've made, that we're just going to walk into something that's already strong. And it will be up to us to sort of figure out where movement lives in all of these elements that have already been made.

The show that was at the Generator Space right before this was “Alluvium,” which also deals with our relationship to natural resources and the environment. I know that this show, you had the concept before “Alluvium” was in the gallery. But that being said, did you take any inspiration from it?

I was inspired by “Alluvium” quite a bit. I'm always inspired by shows that raise questions around ownership of natural resources, or what we understand is common goods, or what we might expect would be accessible to all humans. And we know the reality of that is much more complicated. And so I think both shows call into question, you know, who are these natural resources for? And who has the power over them and who does not? 

I'll just say, this translates a little bit to my process in the sense that I'm interested in the idea of authorship and ownership of intangible things like talent and ownership of energy and ownership of especially time-based art forms, like dance or like music, or even this painting, which will be torn down in a matter of weeks. Which will no longer exist. So this sort of ephemera property is fascinating to me. I think that by calling myself an organizer — I'm not curator, right? This is not a property of Lauren Simpson Dance kind of production. You know, we get to all sort of collectively own or collectively not own whatever this final product is.

That's a nice transition in my into my next question, which is how do you choreograph something with such an ephemeral quality like sunlight?

I was a recipient of the Drew Billings [Artist Support] Grant through Amplify, and so, yes, those funds helped me create that project.

“Moving Truck” kind of centered on performances essentially on people's front lawns here in Omaha. So what was it like to go from choreographing such an experimental piece like that to choreographing for a more traditional indoor gallery space?

It feels really good. I feel like there's an appetite now for people to go to events. I understand there's hesitancy around it as well. This particular project, you know, you can view it from the outside masked, you can be inside possibly. Most likely, people will just be standing outside on the sidewalk and looking in through the windows and watching it. So it feels like this middle ground event that isn't quite a full-fledge pack-the-theater, but it isn't “Moving Truck “ either, where we brought dance and performance to people's front lawns and sort of brought it to their houses, which was so special and such a fun way to be creating in the very center of the pandemic. But now that we're coming out the other end, it feels really good to be in a space and to invite people into your house, so to speak, and let them peek in on what you're doing.

I know Derrick Higgins who did the music for “Moving Truck” also did the music for “Celestial Real Estate.” So are the other artists previous collaborators as well?

No, they're brand new. I cold-called Celeste Butler, and she was gracious enough to jump on this project. I knew I wanted a diversity of voices and media and ways of approaching work to be involved in this process. So I sort of sought people out based on that. Nick Miller is someone who is also a recent transplant, like myself, to Omaha. So we sort of knew each other through some common folks, but he has a different approach as well. So I was just trying to kind of bring together maybe some unlikely pairings, and that's sort of how I went about looking for collaborators.

Visit for more information about Celestial Real Estate and to reserve a free ticket for a gallery viewing or spot at a live performance. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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