Dance doesn’t intuitively seem like the best medium for communicating about climate change. Talk of carbon dioxide levels and radiative forcing hardly stirs the viscera the way a good dance performance should. But maybe that’s what’s missing from the climate conversation—a direct emotional appeal. Tonight, choreographer Karole Armitage, renowned since the 1980s as the “punk ballerina,” unveils On the Nature of Things at New York City’s American Museum of Natural History.
The dance will unfurl across three stages to fill the museum’s Millstein Hall of Ocean Life, where taxidermied polar bears and walruses can monitor the proceedings from their dioramas.
For Armitage, climate change is an inherently emotional issue. “Man and nature are in a love affair,” she says, “and sometimes in relationships you have to make change to keep this going.”
She first began thinking about choreographing climate change during an eco-tour in Costa Rica. Her interest eventually led her to an essay by Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, whose controversial 1968 book, The Population Bomb, predicted that overpopulation would lead to famine and widespread conflict within a decade or two. Ehrlich’s time frame was not correct, but he continues to warn of the dangers of humans increasing in number. In the 2013 essay that piqued Armitage’s interest, Ehrlich wrote, “a global collapse appears likely…[and] dramatic cultural change provides the main hope of averting calamity.”
Ehrlich’s essay provides a narrative backdrop for Armitage’s dance, and he personally reads his text aloud during the performance. Armitage refers to the narration and the dance as a “parallel journey” that “brings emotion to science.” Melding the two was one of the main challenges of the piece. Dance is a subtle art form in which the viewer has nearly unfettered interpretive freedom. Ehrlich’s advocacy isn’t known for its subtlety. Here’s a snippet of the narration:
In the 21st century, we have created a civilization that is way out of step with the realities of our planet. We treat already overcrowded earth as if it can support ever-growing numbers of people and continuously expanding consumption. We act as if there were an infinite “away” into which we can throw our wastes.
Armitage admits to worrying about forcing audiences’ personal reactions through the text but argues that the topic is too compelling to sidestep. In the end, she’s confident that the sparse narration is a nudge and not a sledgehammer.
“Everything is political,” she says, “but art has ambiguity. It’s not dictating what you’re supposed to think or feel—it brings awareness of what it feels like to be alive now. Climate change is happening now.”
With this piece, Armitage places herself in a tradition of choreographers who take on the big issues of their day. Lester Horton’s Chronicle turned a Ku Klux Klan rally into a horrifying spectacle of dance in 1937. A year before Arthur Miller premièred The Crucible, Mary Anthony choreographed The Devil in Massachusetts, making the connection between the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials—and risking her career in the process. Daniel Nagrin’s Not Me But Him explored the legacy of Jim Crow in 1965.
Climate change advocates have been struggling for at least a decade to find the right words to convince American holdouts that the threat is real, serious, and imminent. Climate change communications has become an entire field of research. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the answer were to stop talking and start dancing?
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