Elemental Responses to Climate Change

biodance, elemental forces redux @ the theater at innovation square, rochester fringe festival, 17 september 2022.

In Elemental Forces Redux, Missy Pfohl Smith and Biodance join with the Dave Rivello Ensemble and digital media artist W. Michelle Harris to present movement, music, and video art inspired by the climate crisis. There is a sense of urgency in the work, but more so an effort to remain balanced in the face of suffering, chaos, anxiety, fear, and disorder. In a historical moment when the opportunity to “solve” climate change has rapidly given way to a focus on adjusting to living with it, Elemental Forces Redux reminds us to remember that not all is lost. There is heightened awareness, community, and beauty to be found still, Biodance proposes, even if the overall crisis cannot be averted; and, as Smith points out at one point during the performance, in a text about how rapidly the earth began to heal during the Covid-19 shutdown, who knows if maybe dramatic improvements can still occur?

The dance begins with a long list of locations on the video screen, all affected by climate change through floods, fires, or other intensified weather events. There are so many places listed one might conclude, rightly, that climate change is affecting everyone everywhere. This interplay of scale between the specific and the universal, this one place and every place, persists throughout the work. The four sections of Elemental Forces, after all, cover all four elements: Water, Earth, Fire, and Air, with Wind added for good measure. Nothing is left out, but within the totality of the elements, very particular stories and details emerge in short, informational texts read from clipboards by individual dancers. The movement also integrates the distinctive with the general—the dancers often gradually shift from basic human gestures of walking, holding, standing, sitting, swaying, leaning, and turning to stranger, more startling movements: leaping, twisting, jabbing, falling, crawling, popping, contorting. These progressions from the familiar to the more unconventional convey a nagging, lurking sense of the world gone awry with climate change—still our world, but yet increasingly a transformed and troubling setting.

The first section, Wind, featured a slowly developing work inspired by a site-specific performance in Powder Mills Park. Dancers swayed like trees in a cluster, then moved outward into a nicely composed circle. The movement took some time to develop, but then it catalyzed into an energetic buzz of centripetal energy, dancers composed into whirling circles at the center of the stage, a gravitational pull. Limbs may bend, but roots center.

Water, the next section, started with a bass clarinet solo—that most human vocal tonality of reed instruments. The interplay of voice-not voice, human-not human continued with the band singing a kind of Gregorian chant. The choral effect now had human voices sounding like instruments. Back and forth the pivot went between human bodies and bodies of water (well, we are mostly made of water anyway, one might notice while watching the performance). The musical flow between instruments and voices accompanied a marvelous duet between two of the dancers that itself was marked by explorations of pause and flow. The dancers slowly spun in parallel and then flipped around and over each other with a deceptively easy grace. An especially evocative moment was when one of the dancers held the other on the hip in a slow spin, so that both seemed weightless for a moment. Then they came back to earth, leaning and twisting around each other, always in control but always at the edge of imbalance, like currents coming up against the banks of the river, bouncing back, hinting at the undertow. This watery movement suggested the beauty of water, but it always also hinted that at any moment things might overflow, overwhelm. This element so essential to tranquility, peace, nourishment, survival, can also, with more force, more pressure, destroy everything in its path.

A wonderful trumpet solo by Mike Kuapa splatted the air with sweet and sour notes in the Earth section. It was indicative of how the music by the Rivello Ensemble had an Ellingtonian savviness to it, filled with thick harmonies, tasteful solos, and an interest in a wide range of timbres and sounds. The ensemble could move from the ethereal to the elemental with dexterity. As the dancers segued from movements familiar to ones more uncanny, so too the music could go from something like a conventional keyboard solo with typical jazz harmonies to a vibratory drone of a bass note that hummed along on the line between noise and music.

In Fire, for instance, the brass and reeds jumped like popcorn but the rhythm section maintained an insistent groove. The contrast worked well with Smith’s solo, a kind of slowing intensifying ripple and crackle of energy that played with the dynamic of steady heat and bursts of flame. At times, the music pushing momentum onward, Smith seemed almost to dissolve into the infrared video by Harris projected behind her: a small part of the larger inferno which was, of course, only constituted by its many individual conflagrations.

After Fire, most of the Biodance ensemble returned for Air, once again starting from calm, circular motions that were, here and there, by the end of the section, broken up into sudden, more strident upright stepping almost reminiscent of Irish dance.

There was, overall, a kind of reserved calm to Elemental Forces Redux even as it confronted the traumas of climate change and the power of elements that humans have so disturbed. We might pay attention, the performance suggested, to how the human motor fits into this larger, troubling atmosphere of nature out of whack. We might sound out how the human sensorium relates to the larger biosphere. To feel, hear, and see the elements by at once embodying them yet also noticing their otherness is to attempt to reconfigure how humans relate to the natural world. We are, after all, at once in it, of it, and yet alienated from it.

To return to elemental forces as Biodance does is to not ask if we can solve the problems of Mother Nature, but rather if we can resequence the patterns of human nature. Can we rethink its wildness and abandon, its urge for control and subordination, its penchant for needing to master things, its drive for freedom, and its possibilities for solidarity and community? We must reimagine ourselves to confront climate change, but what’s funny, and always lurking in Elemental Forces Redux, is that the elements ultimately don’t care if we do or not.

2 thoughts on “Elemental Responses to Climate Change

  1. Michael, thank you for your gift of perception and your thoughtful response to Elemental Forces Redux. It is rare to have such a thorough, attentive and supportive response to work that is interdisciplinary and complex. Thank you for your care in considering both the artwork and the environment in the context of climate change. I’m grateful to have discovered your writing and your website and look forward to following it.

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