Reviewing the literature
Why is dance important for connecting us with Antarctica?
As we have learned from Laban and Exiner, dance involves total body and mind awareness. In dance there is no distinction between them. And when dance is conceived as energy moving through space and time, dancers experience environments as continuous with themselves. With its capacity to generate empathic responses from performers and audiences, dance holds promise as an art to connect us with changing environments.
As places of motion and change, the polar regions lend themselves to choreography. Yet few dance works have been made in response to experiencing them. Few choreographers have been to the poles.
Antarctica can be seen as performing a dance of rhythms change in weather and climate.
Antarctica's weather changes from minute to minute, and can be known about acutely through all our senses. As Ward's 1955 diary reveals, Antarctic wind is 'tearing and blinding', as drift 'slithers around walls and over roofs.'
Climate changes are known through the study of changes in ice sheets, fossilised tree rings, sediment, and rocks. Antarctica's climate changes over eons in response to celestial rhythms. Paleoclimatic evidence supports Milankovitch's theory that regular changes in Earth's orbit around the sun drive the natural climate cycles on Earth, but the mechanisms of this forcing remain incompletely understood.
Antarctic ice and sea floor sediments hold evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is upsetting this ancient pattern, tipping the natural balance to accelerate global warming.
Earth scientist, Rudolfo del Valle, uses the metaphor of a children's swing to illustrate his understanding.
For this process we could make an analogy with the father who swings his child in a park hammock. He swings the kid cyclically, with a certain rhythm, not at random - otherwise, the hammock would twist, the child would fall...and the game would be over. I believe there's more and more evidence that we are 'twisting the chain of the hammock'.
Juan, 2005, p.93
Recent concerns about global warming have inspired many artists to go to the poles to convey what they learn is happening there. Yet only recently have choreographers ventured to the ice.
Laban and Exiner gave gestural expression to their experience of human continuity with the natural world. Davies's work, Endangered Species, can be read as an expression of her awareness of this reality, heightened by the extreme environment of the Arctic. As she says,
So the knowledge is that I come back here, and I know I am being physically affected every second of the day. But now I'm more aware of it because I was put in that extreme situation up there.
In con. London 2008
Davies explains that 'the experience of gradually understanding this lack of line between myself and where I exist' has been an ongoing part of her research as a choreographic and dance artist. Experiencing the extreme environment of the Arctic reminded her of that reality, to spark 'an engine for a different kind of energy'.
In the act of living our day to day lives, you forget,
...you just, you forget that you are, that your mind and your body are made up of matter and that the place that you live in is made up of matter and that you are, each part of you is just moleculed, or remoleculed up into different ways. And by truly recognising that - not in a poetic sense, not in a...any other sense than IT IS. There it is! It,s what you have to deal with, what you have to understand. Because IT is understanding itself. Because it's a fact.
In con. London 2008
How does Endangered Species reveal this reality? A physical description of the work will explain its ephemeral nature and an analysis of its movement will explain its connecting qualities. The work's ephemeral nature and connecting movement qualities combine to express human continuity with the natural world in motion.
A video of a female dancer is projected at smaller than human scale. She appears to move, insect-like, within the glass confines of a small cabinet, or museum vitrine. That the cabinet is old is significant. Its air of authority and solidity contrasts with the small fleeting form. It evokes the idea of our selves as past species, preserved for the gaze of future observers who may never understand us. Like an insect in amber, the human form is captured as evidence of a moment.
The dancer moves in a white skin-tight body suit against a black background. The legs of the suit are dyed, fading to back below her hips. The effect of this is make the legs disappear. Our focus is therefore on the upper body and arms. Arm-length white rods of a flexible material appear to be pierced through her body. These rods suggest the 'theoretical rods' devised by Polycleitus to define points of human motion in his sculptures that 'show the physical potential of an athlete.' The rods in Endangered Species go beyond the 'potential' movement of Polycleitus. They move, to extend and exaggerate gestures reaching within and beyond the kinesphere. The rods extend the body's movement beyond what is humanly possible. Are these gestures metaphors for human expansion, within and beyond our selves? They suggest we can reach within and beyond our selves. They also suggest we can reach beyond our understanding. This overreaching can be read positively or negatively. Or it can simply be read as a metaphor for how the world as we know it works.
The rhythmic sounds of the moving rods accentuate the rhythm of the dancer's gestures. This even rhythm evokes the natural rhythms that we lknow drive change in our environment: cycles between glacial and interglacial periods that may herald speciation. Throughout the dance, there is evolution, through sometimes subtle and other times sudden changes.
The rhythmic image and sound patterns in this work can be felt as reassuring, or alarming. Or they can be read as reflecting of how things actually are: in constant changing motion.
As we have seen, some profound ideas and feelings can be evoked from different readings of Endangered Species. As arts writer Greg Hilty explains, this reflects something of the artist's intention.
Back home in London, Siobhan quickly formed the idea for a work that would embody some of the emotions and rational thoughts the journey had evoked for her. She wanted to create an image of a small, semi-human figure, displayed in a museum vitrine as if it were a branch of the human species that had either died out or was yet to evolve, or existed in some parallel world. She drew on a distinctive passage from one of her dance company's recent major works, titled 'Plants and Ghosts' in which dancer Sarah Warsop had started from a single simple movement, replicating it through a choreographic process evoking cellular growth. The development from movement phrase to dance passage quickly brought in the need for simple props, light flexible rods with which Sarah extended her ability to reach out in all directions.
Hilty, 2006, p.90
New Zealand choreographer Bronwyn Judge went to Antarctica in the summer of 2001-2002. She worked as an Antarctic Arts Fellow under the Artists to Antarctica Programme and the Invitational Artists Programme. In 2003 she composed Circulus Antarcticus, which she developed both as a live performance and as a screen-based video work.
Gestures for the performance work are suggested in Figure 35. A sense of expansive connection between earth and sky is evident in both dancers. One reaches downwards through the spine and head, as if grounding herself deep into the earth. The other reaches through the whole upper body, as if connecting with the sky above. A sense of connection between the two dancers has been achieved through their body lines. It is as if they move as one with each other, and with the environment.
The screen-based work reveals similarities with Davies's video installation. As with Davies's Endangered Species, the movement and form of a single female dancer is extended, reflecting a sense that ideas and feelings are heightened in the ice. Judge's figure is clothed in blue-green and white fabric, suggestive of colours refracting from glaciers. The costume's trailing panels distort the human form and accentuate its movements. As with Davies's figure, the movements are opening and closing, curling and stretch, reaching both within and beyond itself. And, as with Endangered Species the movements change and evolve to a rhythm, with parts of the body disappearing altogether.
Judge's dancer, however, is quite literally mirrored. Its distortions are made more unnaturally extreme by the use of digital effects. A video filter has been used to symmetrically mirror and slice the body. It duplicates in parts and as a whole. It completely disappears. This visual metamorphosis suggests evolutionary change, speciation and distinction. Forms combine, distort and multiply, to either die or survive. What was the artists intention?
As Judge says,
The mirroring is my attempt to reflect the feeling of perfection that the antarctic landscape projects. The dance becomes a perfectly symmetrical design. Also lighting became paramount in importance. The light was such in the Antarctic that almost everything became transformed into something visually beautiful. It was so clear and intense. As for things disappearing, because of the silence, weather seemed to quietly come upon you. One minute there was cloud on the horizon and the next mist swirling in a disorientating fog about one so it was difficult to distinguish land from sky. The world disappeared.
The sound in this work is a combination of the incidental sound of the dancer's body contacting the floor, the rustling of her costume fabric, and recorded music. Together they work to bring the vastness of Antarctic space to human scale. The sounds of the dancer's body evoke the place and time of a live performance. The music, by fellow Antarctic artist, Chris Cree Brown, evokes the void of Antarctica as a timeless space. Sounds of the Antarctic environment shape silences, with ethereal human voices fading in between. An other-worldly quality suggests the composer's own time there, which he describes as 'one of the most significant and important experiences of my life. The various moods, expansive grandeur and majestic ice-scapes of Antarctica have left a deep and enduring impression.'