Creating Street Theatre & Dance

October 19, 2012

I am still up here in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate NY creating and thinking with a group of diverse and accomplished artists about arts, politics, science and activism relating to the climate crisis. There are many areas of focus in this “Climate of Change” residency but one thing I wanted to write about was the experience of creating a street theatre piece, collectively designed and performed by the artists here, called a cantastoria. We created it in anticipation of 350.org’s ambitious undertaking, beginning with a presentation at University of Vermont, which was the trial run for a speaking tour across the USA starting November 7, the day after their Presidential election.

A cantastoria is an Italian word meaning “sung story” and the concept is to create a series of large banners that impart a story. The banners are suspended from a frame created by affixing a single horizontal pole across the top of two handheld vertical poles. The canvas banners hang from this structure and when flipped over the top, they continually reveal the next banner. What they yield up is a series of pictorial representations about the narrative of the street theatre. The singing part (canta) is not really singing per se, it’s more like storytelling with a loud voice. But at the Blue Mountain Centre, we have lots of musical talent present so real singing was a welcomed addition to the voice of the storytelling. Anais Mitchell and Tem Blessed rocked that out.

But what you see when watching the cantastoria is a series of 7 banners that depict Do the Math—a story being disseminated by 350.org about the climate crisis on tour. The story is effectively a call to arms, saying we got some real numbers in front of us that bring into focus the core of our problem relating to the climate. The numbers offer a direction for our activism and they run something like this:

2o is the maximum amount of atmospheric warming that can occur before we fundamentally change the hospitable conditions for life as we know it on this planet.

565 gigatons is the maximum amount of carbon that can be burned before reaching our limit of 2o increase in global warming.  

2,795 gigatons is the amount of carbon that has already been identified and claimed by fossil fuel companies. They are already making money on it and are banking on its extraction.

That’s where the math gets really scary. Facing us is the reality that the fossil fuel industry owns this amount of carbon which it considers to be part of its inventory, which just hasn’t been pulled out of storage yet (which translates to mean that it just hasn’t been ripped out of the Earth yet). Do the math, and when you do you’ll see that’s 5 times the 565 gigatons of carbon that should be our maximum that can be burned before exceeding 2o of warming. Is that clear? If not then go back and read this paragraph again or click on the link to 350.org and watch our cantastoria, which breaks it down for the 99%.

What I decided to do with my contribution for the cantastoria was to enact the solidarity required by people to fight the fossil fuel industry. I created a Square Dance called Do the Math, which is multiplicative in form, and imagines a world we will live in when people work together again to determine the course to a live-able future. Why a Square Dance? Well for many reasons but the clincher was when I woke up in the middle of the night with a set of verses in my mind that told the story of Do the Math through references to the movements of a Square Dance, I knew it was right.

What makes the idea function is that the narrative of Do the Math and the Square Dance Calls themselves interweave. What makes it fun is that the verses are written in a rap style. Tem Blessed, one of the artists here at this residency, jumped to the task with skill and humour to call our dance with a hip hop flare. And, as the 7th page of the cantastoria appears, Tem calls all the dancers into a square, “not a rectangle, or triangle… a square over there.” Four of us respond to the call and we perform the dance, accompanied by live music. And then when it’s done, we break out of our square, go to the audience and grab three new willing participants to join our next square of 4. Do the Math!

4 times 4 equals 16!

And that’s how many people dance the next time through the square dance. If you add only one more repetition of the form, you see that the number multiplies again but this time by 16. I can’t figure out what 16 times 4 equals in my head quickly but what I know is that it represents a formula for accelerating the growth of our movement. By leaps and bounds, we spread social unrest that makes fossil fuel tycoons (who earn, get this, $100,000 per day) quiver in their boots. And one other thing, let’s save the planet for tomorrow but have fun doing it today, cause we are building a future society that needs to meet some real huge challenges. I hope to see a society that is governed by principles where people can dance together cooperatively, eliciting a whole lot of laughter.

I gotta thank the oganizers of 350.org for making this gathering of artists possible and to David Solnit for spearheading the cantastoria project while we were here. And a huge thanks to the creative artists involved in this project who were democratic enough not to shoot my idea down right away as ridiculous, corny, or cumbersome. They took it seriously in a not too serious way and where that led really made the closing of our cantastoria humorous, participatory and impactful.

Y’all Listen Up

October 8, 2012

October 8, 2012, Blue Mountain Centre NY

What a gift. Wow… I am here at the Blue Mountain Centre in Upstate NY with twelve other amazing artists from many parts of the US and abroad: NY, California, Washington DC, Texas, Spain, and I am the sole Canadian. They are rappers, writers, creative organizers of the Occupy movement, performance artists, visual artists, puppeteers and more. They are all remarkably talented with huge accomplishments behind them and they all straddle the relationship between [and inherent tension between] Art and Activism. I feel so inspired, and I feel in such good company to entertain the paradox (which is so central to my career): how do Art and Activism intersect and how do they compete with one another, how do they complement, and how do they create friction, and finally, what role does creativity really play in social change.

There are millions of answers to these questions, we debate them a lot, and we agree on two things so far. One, artists are visionaries in that they can see what does not yet exist; this is key to Climate Crisis activism; and two, as creative communicators we are empowered to creatively communicate what our minds imagine. In this way we seek to bring people’s hearts to the heart of the matter and advance the cause of social justice.

The goal of this residency is to plot and strategize while at the same time, create and nurture our own art projects. The projects can be things we brought from home that we have been working on for years and they can also be directly Climate Crisis related. In most instances, they are both since there are a lot of hours to work each day, for two weeks. What makes this such a fabulous opportunity is that Blue Mountain Centre is a 150 year old structure (with some newer outbuildings) whose main function today is to serve artists in the form of a Creative Commons.

The concept of Creative Commons puts such inherent value on the roll of art, artists and creativity that my belief in my work is bolstered from below. There is a swelling feeling from all sides to take pride in my contribution and to believe in its service to society. The residents here, which is what we are called, are fed beautiful food and offered assistance wherever needed. My studio is fabulous and I share it each day with a rapper who is making music that I find so uplifting that all I need to do is hear the music and I can start to work. The point is that the invitation to create art is well-tooled and well-fed.

What I am working on is ways to create a roll for physical movement (aka dance) in Climate Crisis Actions. I started by creating a group dance you will be able to imagine if you think of a flashmob. The difference is that dancers do not all face out to the audience but we face one another. It is about the duality of engagement and spectacle, participation and inspiring performance. Effort, unity, cooperation, and functionality (embracing a tinge of anarchy in the performance of the dance), these are my overriding values in embarking on this project. Its aim is to become part of a Creative Commons that anyone can use when creating a Climate Crisis Action. This dance, so far, is being called the “Climate Crisis Shuffle.” We may get a chance to test drive it before I put it into the Creative Commons, as we are considering heading over as a group to Bill McKibben’s first stop on his national speaking tour for http://350.org in Burlington Vermont next weekend.

When organizers plan their next Action, they can draw from this dance submission to the Creative Commons. The goal is to animate the space of anyone’s Action, to get people involved in a way that brings joy and athleticism to their experience, and to create more of a visceral impact for bystanders who are watching the Action unfold.

Another movement platform I am designing for the Creative Commons is a girl’s jump rope rhyme/dance, for adults and kids. The concept of jump rope came to me because of the moral issues of intergenerational justice embedded in this struggle. We owe it to our kids to make a beautiful world for them to grow up into. I like how this model of jump rope rhymes offers an activity and image pool that is playful, but also one that its culturally referencing a predominantly girl-centered and heavily African American-centered movement form. We need a multiplicity of voices in our global movement to make it strong, to make it sustainable, and to make it representative, so jumping rope to rhymes brings an important voice to the mix of who cares about the climate. Another attribute of this form is that movement and words are connected, which allows us to message something while we are “performing” our activity. This is a discovery that I made and researched extensively under the auspices of Pure Research offered by Nightswimming (in partnership with Simon Fraser University) last June.

While I am here, I am also working on research for another dance project focused on Restorative Justice back home in Vancouver. I use my body to investigate themes that will surface in this piece (that is premiering December 1, 2012 at the Music and Transformation conference at Simon Fraser University. By doing this research now I will put the LINK Dance company way further ahead when we assemble at the beginning of November to resume rehearsals to mount a public presentation of this evolving piece. I created a short dance so far (3.5 minutes) inspired by the shaking action of a drug addict. A physical manifestation of their addiction, while serving as a poignant symbol or marking of them as social misfits. I am critical of this manner in which we collectively remove the validity of a person to take part equally in public life based on past trauma and current illness. It is a subtheme in the work on Restorative Justice, which advocates that we all heal by listening to one another and being listened to.

Finally, while all the residents are gathered here for this Themed Residency at BMC, the group has decided to create a series of discussion topics. We formed a schedule to meet almost daily to host the series of topics we identified. They will happen in the evenings before dinner and that way can spill over into dinner conversation. Some themes are Art and Activism, Hopelessness, Strategies to confront the Climate Crisis… We also have a topic on the body and spirit as important contributions to the narratives we tell and the tactics we employ to build this global movement. Each of us chose to take one of the topics and to facilitate that discussion. I am co-facilitating the discussion called “Body, Mind and Spirit.” I’ll write about that next week. For now suffice it to say I have created two new short dances and a verse for jump roping in a group.

Just completed “How Can it be Fair”

April 26, 2012

Wow, what a great project we just completed. I loved so much about what we made and how the performers executed it. The dancing sections depicting emotions and the physical state of fairness versus unfairness, both moved me deeply. I felt such a strong visceral sensation each time I watched those pieces of the work being danced by LINK’s fantastically accomplished Cara Siu and Darcy McMurray. I was also happy with the way the composition of the show worked in terms of taking the audience from seeing or struggling to see the opening duet dance about “gaining perspective” and then having Dr. Lawrence Ward lead the audience through a physical exploration to change each person’s viewing position to make the composition of the room more fair in terms of seeing the dance. Fun to get people thinking, hen feeling and then acting all towards the goal of achieving greater fairness. The Calgary show at the awesome SKEW Gallery, was a great hit because of the audience’s ability to move wherever they wanted to shift their perspective. They ended up encircling the final trio, which brought the dance into focus in a whole new way. I sure appreciated that last experiment and how it kept the project growing and evolving from the first day of rehearsal to the last day of performance. Thanks to all who worked on the project and huge thanks to everyone who came. And finally, gigantic thanks to Dr. Janis Sarra for making it all happen.

Movement Stories #1

April 28, 2011

“Movement Stories” is a new project by LINK Dance. A series of short films that explore site specific dance through the medium of smart phone technology. This episode, featuring Amber Funk Barton with music by JP Carter, is the first of two prototypes that will one day become part of a large, animated walking tour of Vancouver.

EXPERIMENTS in the news

November 21, 2010

This Vancouver Observer article is written by one of LINK’s collaborators. It captures so much about the storytelling aspect of science. watch here…

EXPERIMENTS in the Vancouver Observer

November 21, 2010

Here is a story that one of LINK’s collaborators, Lee Gass, recently published in his column in the online newspaper the “Vancouver Observer”. I think you’ll enjoy the read.

A video interview about EXPERIMENTS

November 16, 2010

notice my favorite color–Orange.

The audience has a crucial role to play

November 9, 2010

What I have learned from working with scientists over the past three years is that almost everything you can say about an artist can be said about a scientist. Both are driven by ideas they seek to surface. The rigorous practice of a scientist is the same rigorous practice that is integral to creating art. There are technicians in both fields who stay on the safe edges of their work, hiding behind technique; but what stands out is that people with courage and imagination in both fields are the ones rewarded with discoveries about human experience and natural phenomena.

A famous nineteenth-century thinker, Claude Bernard, captured the connection between science and art beautifully when he said: “Those who do not know the torment of the unknown cannot have the joy of discovery.” This shared passion of scientists and artists to reveal ideas and insights from deep within ourselves, forms a crucial connection between our disciplines.

So passion unites us, but so does our curiosity. It is not just our tendency to ask questions that marks the resemblance. It is the nature of our questioning that brings our work closer together than we might suspect. Intuition! It is a powerful tool in both science and art. And it is what allows our minds to suspect connections between seemingly unrelated variables. Our minds form connections between observations of distinct phenomena through intuition, and in so doing, we take knowledge in new directions.

An Example: One day, I was struck intuitively by the realization that dance audiences, choreographers, and behavioural ecologists share a similar attribute. Each faces the task of observing non-verbal language and applying meaning to it. We each put a fair amount of mental energy into viewing this non-verbal language composed of movements and actions, and then attempt to construct a sort of logic that allows these movements to suggest meaning and to resonate.

The starting point for EXPERIMENTS was this moment of intuition (the moment each of our scientists refers to as the AHA moment). My goal in this project, since that moment has been to investigate how the eyes of dancers and ecologists, and soon audiences, witness non-verbal language and how our minds attach meaning to it. Each discovery feeds back into the creation of this work.

There is nothing more true about science and art, than that both are about the study of nature (the nature of molecules, animals, societies, bodies, people) and that only with an open mind can we detect anything new that enriches our collective understanding. This same open-mindedness is the key to being a satisfied viewer of dance. You must bring yourself to the act of interpreting non-verbal language, like a child, without judgement, and dive in.

Sculptor Lee Gass exhibits at the opening of EXPERIMENTS

October 29, 2010

The Impulse to Create

October 29, 2010

I am now in the thick of it. Cell phone constantly plastered to my ear. Collaborators at every rehearsal with questions and new ideas to bring into the mix. BREATH. Computer crashes that threaten the composer’s work and timeline. BREATH. The dancers getting more and more articulate at the physical vocabulary we have created and now I can see what I actually have created … oh dear, the questioning begins. BREATH.

Such an exciting time and a time of little rest, but it all leads me to wonder what drives the creative spirit, and what could possibly possess me to undertake such a massive project? I can’t say that I know exactly what the answer is, but it does bring me back to the start of this project. When I first proposed the idea of creating a work based on Experimental Design to my original collaborator, Dr. Mark Winston, in 2008.

Mark is the Academic Director of the Simon Fraser University Centre for Dialogue. He had been impressed with my first work created through this collaboration with scientists (in the field of Behavioural Ecology) and he wanted to help spearhead a new piece, even larger in scale and more ambitious in content. I was gamed. So he asked, “what would you want to create a piece about?” I said, “Experimental Design in Science.” He was surprised, to say the least. What I said next, however, hooked him. “Experimental Design,” I told him, “is as much a reflection of the personality and personal beliefs of a scientist, as it is a reflection of the natural world under investigation. And the elegance of a good design is as beautiful as dance.” He totally agreed and totally jumped in, feet first.

Mark was visibly thrilled that I understood this aspect of experimental design that it is a mirror for personality and a pursuit of elegance in how to ask a refined question. I guess he knew that it was the consequence of having fallen in love with a scientist and seeing first hand the passion, the wit, and the artistry that my husband brings into the process of designing a good experiment. I love how the personality of a scientist is so evident in their experiments–a witty mind creates a trap, a romantic mind seeks evidence of deep connectivity between things, a social activist looks for the influence of community on individual actions in animal behaviour. I was charmed by the spirit of scientists, like when you first begin to see the personality of a child emerging from a newborn.

I was also charmed by how scientists use language. As terse as poetry! Melodic like music. They speak in a way about their research, that gave me a sense of accompaniment for dance. Precise, razor-sharp, impassioned.

These are some of the starting points for this project and they are beginning to become visible in the outcomes of our creative process. Months of experimentation and finally I find myself deeply satisfied to witness what was only in my imagination finding real expression in movement, music, etc. The impulse to translate their poetry; to capture their personalities inside their experiments; interpreting the elegance of a clean set of results with an elegant phrase of dance. I think I am finding the answer to why I undertook the massive endeavour …

I had the idea that Behavioural Ecologists and Choreographers sharing a key aspect in our work–that we both interpret movement and actions as meaningful information, enough to build a career around. A cool idea but until it is presented in some way, it remains only that … an idea. To be brave is to speak that idea out loud through this production.

EXPERIMENTS: Where Logic and Emotion Collide at the Scotiabank Dance Centre, November 25-27, 8pm (plus a Discover Dance noon show on Thursday Nov 25).