In 2010, with the gushing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico acting as an ominous background score, in a movement-backed gesture of reverence to the ‘idea’ of water as a living mass of tiny particles, Melinda Buckwalter crawled for three hours, collecting information on the natural disaster, at one point even carrying a log on her back to simulate the effort involved in capping the oil well as part of a festival called SEEDS — Somatic Experiments in Earth, Dance & Science. SEEDS (Massachusetts, USA) serves as a canopy of affirmative movement practices, intended to create an empathetic chord with our environment that is envisaged not as a separate entity but one that is intrinsically connected to us. As she crawled from one location to another, Melinda chanted a simple prayer to water, drawn from Masuro Emoto’s book The True Power of Water, ‘ Forgive Us, we’re sorry, thank you, we love you’. Rudimentary though the incantation might seem, magically enough, that day the oil well was successfully capped. Melinda would like to believe that at a molecular level, her ‘crawl to arms’ had something to do with the happy turnaround of events.
Dance writer, researcher, and teacher of Kinesiology and creator of site and context specific dance works, Melinda Buckwalter is among a growing number of environmental choreographers/dancers who straddle the indescribable space between activism and performance, doing away with the fuss of a proscenium arch, and getting their hands and feet down and dirty. Theirs is not to sermonise from the glare of the arc lights but to actively ‘feel’ and enjoin others to ‘feel’ what the subtle forces of nature might be telling us. The somatic practise is all about being attuned to nature through one’s own body and movement.
“Dance practices created to be shown in a proscenium theater can have a flattening effect on body image. Dancers train by looking in a mirror, copying others on video, and making movement on stage to project in a particular direction. The somatic practice that I was trained in was Anatomical Release Technique and we were taught by looking at anatomical pictures or skeletons to dance our anatomy through proprioceptive (felt) sensations of our bodies. This practice offered me a body proportion that has depth, a three dimensional body schema,” she says.
In fact proprioception, or the act of tuning into one’s own inner stimuli to respond to motion and position in space, is a much valued word among movement practitioners who seek out deeper and meaningful associations with their environments. In 2000, Jennifer Monson, a choreographer, performer, teacher and a professor at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, embarked upon a multi-year navigational dance touring project called the Bird Brain following the migratory journeys of birds and grey whales across north and south hemispheres. The site-specific dance presentations and interactive discussions between scientists and artistes gently wove into the ecosystems of these migratory birds that included urban streets, sanctuaries, public parks thus creating opportunities for myriad spontaneous interactions. Starting with the Pigeon Project, Bird Brain has traversed many miles tailing and tracking grey whales, ospreys, ducks and geese over the years, creating a wealth of information about these creatures in the process.
Positioning herself in the lineage of experimental dance artists through the ages, who have sought to create new understandings and relationships between art, environment, people and places, in 2004 Jennifer Monson founded iLAND — Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature, and Dance. iLAND uses the kinaesthetic of dance to create more visceral connections with the environment, especially urban spaces, through meaningful cross-disciplinary collaborations.
In fact, the community of iLand has now evolved a working method of creating new works called ‘iLANDing’ which co-opts the urban space itself as an active participant and in so doing has led several explorations via dance over a period of time such as the Mahomet Aquifer Project (2008-10) and iMAP/Ridgewood Reservoir (2007). Jennifer finds that her work switches back and forth between activism and performance while her own focus always remains on creating embodied strategies to understand large scale eco-systems and phenomena.
From 2007 to 2008, as part of what is called the Branch Dance Series, dancers led by Merian Soto along with a percussionist and a composer created four different performances at four different sites at the Wissahickon Park in Pennsylvania over four seasons during the course of the year. Called the One Year at the Wissahickon Park Project (OYWPP), the performances entailed a meditative and deliberate movement engagement with branches.
Dancer, choreographer and educator, Merian Soto, one of the founding members of Pepatian, a Bronx-based multi-disciplinary Latino arts organisation, began creating the branch dances in 2005, a practice that called for a heightened sense of awareness of gravity and of the sequence of inner pathways in order to harmoniously move with the branches.
The corpus of learning that has thus been accumulated over the years has led to a unique strand of practice that she now calls branch dancing.
Dance has taken on several mantles over the years. With the birth of modern dance in America and its spread later in Europe, the moving body as a weapon for battling the system by articulating troubling questions within the society, became de rigeur. This non-conformist, questioning nature of dance came to fruition with post-modern dance, the Judson Church Movement being a case in point, where new frontiers in dance were sought through the creation of avante garde precepts that rejected the ‘theatrical’ and encouraged spontaneity and improvisation. Dancers like Jennifer Monson, Melinda Buckwalter, Merian Soto, and others like Suprapto Suryadarmo from Indonesia, who founded the Amerta movement and Eiko Okate from Japan/US, are all inheritors of that tradition who are taking just one more leap from one milestone to another as they bring dancing bodies closer to the sounds and rhythms of the earth in ways that were perhaps never done before. The underlying credo as Merian Soto puts it is, ‘I want us to remember that we are nature.’
And sometimes there are actual tangible outcomes. “The iMAP/Ridgewood Reservoir project was key in activating community members to save the park as an urban wetlands and nature area.The reservoir is now designated as wetlands and it is protected from developmentThe whole area was used by the community around Highland Park in Queens, in a variety of different ways. This was a huge success and it happened over 10 years,” shares Jennifer, speaking of the reservoir located in New York. She herself has been influenced by a wide variety of choreographic and dance techniques from the somatic world, Skinner Releasing and Body Mind Centring being one of them.
As we wade through the turgid and smoggy chapters of yet another century, with the 5th of June annually reminding us of what we should essentially remember every waking moment of every day — that the earth is finite and so are its resources-we as dancers should take a pause and note how Indian traditions and practices have always recognised this connection of the microcosm within to the macrocosm without. Indeed entire philosophies have been built upon this idea of unity. As Indian classical dancers, in fact, we begin our every first step with the namaskar, a sort of giving thanks to and seeking permission from mother earth who bears our burden.
Traditionally, dancing in India involved paying obeisance to all the subtle and indefinable forces that made up our environment. Wind became vayu deva, fire became agni deva etc. And in so doing the dancing body became a carriage of energy that recognised and engendered divinity in all beings of nature. As we go further and further away from the original source and an organic way of living, we find ourselves at odds with our own environment. Practices have become shorn of meaning. While some dancers have addressed through artistic presentations the pressing environmental concerns of modern day India, we do perhaps need our own version of the ‘crawl to arms’ or ‘branch dancing’ .
Masuro Emoto may have devised a simple chant for water, but the apah suktam from Rig Veda (10.9) recognised the potency of water as a living entity way, way before him. I leave you with the opening lines of the beautiful ancient verse:
Aapo Hi Sstthaa Mayo-Bhuvasthaa Na Uurje Dadhaatana |
Mahe Rannaatha Cakssase ||1||
1.1: O water, because of your presence, the atmosphere is so refreshing, and imparts us
with vigor and strength.
1.2: We revere you who gladdens us by your pure essence.