For Stephen Ursprung, one of three artistic directors of the young contemporary dance company Reject Dance Theatre, a career in the arts was something he sort of fell into.
An economics and Italian studies double major at Brown University, Ursprung found himself at a crossroads when he completed his bachelor’s in 2010, only to graduate in the midst of a financial collapse that crippled the US. After years of his regarding it as a passionate (but peripheral) hobby, dance suddenly opened up as a viable career path.
“I kind of used the rejection as a way to decide to just to go for investing in my own artistic expression,” Ursprung says. “I was like, I may as well do this while I’m young and just throw myself into that type of setting while I still have the body and the energy to do it!”
Reject Dance Theatre was also the product of serendipitous chance. Ursprung enrolled at Smith College’s MFA Dance program in a class of five that included fellow students (and future co-directors) Stephanie Simpson and Rebecca Hite Teicheira. The trio later learned that they were the top three picks for the program, even though they’d been rejected by every other program to which they’d applied.
“We banded together as a group of rejects,” Ursprung says with a smile. “[The name] came out of a joke, but it’s memorable, and we definitely do things that are quirky and fun. For most audiences, it’s something a little outside of preconceived notions of what dance might be, especially people who aren’t into contemporary modern dance, and are more exposed to commercial dance. We all kind of came from that. We’ve rejected things along the way, as well as being rejected.”
One of the company’s core values is accessibility. Ursprung believes that the dance world, while full of creative and brilliant minds, can be insular in a way that shuts many potential audiences out. He hopes to use his training in both commercial and avant-garde forms to break down the perceived barrier between “high art” and “low art” in order to attract audiences of all backgrounds and experience levels.
“Our work tends to be more inviting, I would say, than most post-postmodern dance you see in the world,” Ursprung says. “I say that as a blanket statement and not as a dig at anyone else in the field. We try to make our work fun and inviting, definitely not off-putting. But at the same time we’re kind of weird.”
All are apt descriptions for the company’s latest project, The Territory Suites. Reject’s first evening-length performance, Suites combines separate pieces from all three directors into one interconnected whole, drawing on conventions of theatrical storytelling and inspired by ideas of what it means to occupy a space.
“[Simpson’s piece] is a sort of internalized psychological approach to territory and space. And then Rebecca’s piece is so grotesque and animalistic. I would say my approach is pedestrian and human. By framing everything with my work, it sort of contextualizes all of that as part of the human experience,” Ursprung explains. “Instead of having a piece that’s wild and animalistic, having a separate piece that’s intense and emotional and internalized, by having my work scattered throughout the larger narrative arc it tied it all together as one cohesive experience, the life experience.”
As Ursprung has learned, life experiences can’t always be neatly tied up, and the path can be winding. But this openness to exploration is one of the reasons why he came to Boston to build his company.
“I felt like there was a need for new voices to come into the space and contextualize what’s going on, and add a lot of diversity. Boston is a conservative city in terms of its audience base, so I was excited about the opportunity to come in and do something that’s a little bit different than traditional modern dance,” he says. “The idea of just presenting yourself and being yourself and thinking deeply about that made a lot of sense.”
REJECT DANCE THEATRE PRESENTS: THE TERRITORY SUITES. THE DANCE COMPLEX, 536 MASS AVE., CAMBRIDGE. MARCH 20-21. 8PM/$25. TO PURCHASE TICKETS, VISIT REJECTDANCETHATRE.COM