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Elapse: Dancing about Climate Change

This is the first in a series about the process of creating a new work entitled "Elapse"

Elvis Costello allegedly said that “writing about music was like dancing about architecture.” As a choreographer, I agree. It's challenging (though rewarding) to create work about anything besides dance itself. I love to see meaning emerge from movement, even if it dissolves back into abstraction within seconds. In my mind every piece I’ve created is about something outside dance---rivers, threads, cats, whatever. And sometimes that meaning is discovered very late in the process---through the search for a title or the writing of a program note.

In this case, however, I was assigned a topic: “A Future Place”. I was to be on a Ballet Memphis triple bill with fellow choreographers Joshua Peugh (A Past Place) and Jennifer Archibald (A Present Place). I knew about the commission over a year in advance, but until a few days before my first rehearsal I didn’t know what approach to take.

I did a lot of reading though. And since it's hard to imagine a future place without thinking of environmental change, that was the path I chose from the outset.

My research led me to The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, a thought-provoking book that addresses questions like What if humans disappeared tomorrow? How would nature reclaim our world, and how long would it take? What sort of fossil record our civilisation would leave for future beings? I loved the images of abandoned cities, of Lexington Avenue becoming a river, of roots and shrubs crumbling concrete, and of silt and sediment burying the record of our existence.

Above are some images from my Pinterest board for this piece. To see the whole board, click here:

I wrote about all this to Ballet Memphis Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who was understandably concerned about its dystopian, possibly hopeless, tone. I hadn’t been planning an especially dark piece and hurried to assure her as much. Still, in my mind the bigger problem was: how do I create a dance piece about the absence of humanity?

I talked with costume designer Christine Darch about how we might work with these ideas through design. Could the stage be taken over by kudzu? Could the dancers accumulate plant forms on their costumes throughout the course of the piece? As it turned out, Christine had designed something quite similar (and gorgeous) for Julia Adam’s Devil’s Fruit, which I’d never seen.

Above: Hideko Karasawa of Ballet Memphis in Julia Adam's Devil's Fruit, costume by Christine Darch.

So I kept searching.

My next important book was Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made, by Gaia Vince. In all the horrific information about mining, deforestation, climate change, and water shortages, I found the seed of something I liked: biomimicry--the imitation of nature’s design in order to create sustainable and restorative technologies.

Here was a more hopeful line of thought.

I watched a great TED Talk by Janine Benyas and started reading The Shark’s Paintbrush by Jay Harman. I liked the elegant concept of using nature’s fibonacci spiral patterns to design safer, more efficient fans and turbines. Likewise, lilypad-inspired floating cities and fog harvests seemed both poetic and reassuring. Reading all this I felt both hopeful and anxious. Could we really implement these ideas in time to overcome inertia and avert our own destruction? Would they even be sufficient, given exponential rises in population and sea levels?

And my more immediate concern: could I really make a dance piece about any of this?

I’ve choreographed many works for just dancers and light onstage, but for “Places” I knew I wanted another object onstage for context. Some sort of prop or scenic element. It had to be something simple and universally understood, and I needed it to translate the anxiety I felt about the accelerating pace of environmental change and our efforts to remedy it. Ideally it would relate to the three dress forms I'd brought onstage for my previous Ballet Memphis creation, Moult. (As if my task wasn't already daunting enough, I was already thinking of the new piece as a sequel to the earlier work---a suggestion from Christine, my invaluable designer for both pieces.)

Giulia Spinelli of Ballet Memphis in Moult

Alongside my Pinterest boards, I took notes, which I scanned daily before journaling. At the top of one entry I’d written “we need a sense of time passing”. I wrote about sediment accumulating and burying things. I thought a lot about soil and agriculture, and about Saharan dust feeding Amazonian plants. Every day I reread these ideas but didn’t know what to do with them.

Then on New Year’s Eve, riding the subway, I suddenly thought “HOURGLASSES”. Here was a simple, universal symbol of passing time but also one that could be reversed or paused. It had the built-in movement of falling sediment, and it formed a great parallel with the hourglass figures of the three dress forms.

And not a moment too soon, as my rehearsal period was to begin January 4.

More process stuff will follow in later installments. In the meantime, please enjoy some fun hourglass facts by clicking on the images in the gallery below.

Other interesting articles:

Return to Paradise, by Laura Spinney, on London's hypothetical return to nature.

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