The arts have long been used to draw people’s attention to things… a woman’s mysterious smile, social injustice, or details in the world around us. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports…one choreographer is using dance to encourage people to become more aware of nature:
The arts have long been used to draw people’s attention to things – a woman’s mysterious smile,
social injustice, or details in the world around us. As the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports…one choreographer is using dance to
encourage people to become more aware of nature:
It’s really cold and gray outside. But the tropical conservatory at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens in
Ann Arbor is green and lush. The air is thick with humidity, warmth, and sweet-scented pollen.
The horticulturalists are sweeping up dead leaves, replacing plants, and removing wilted
blossoms. But occasionally the workers lift their heads from what they’re doing to take in an unusual
There’s a group of dancers, ranging in age from 7 to 70, rehearsing a performance among the
garden’s plants, waterfalls and walkways.
(sound of rehearsal)
They lean against vine-covered walls, prance down paths, and splash water from a fish pond.
Occasionally a dancer’s arm brushes against a branch setting the leaves of a bamboo, papyrus, or
orchid plant in motion. Shirley Axon is an environmental activist and one of the dancers. She
says it’s quite an experience dancing in a lush conservatory instead of a barren stage.
“It’s thrilling…the humidity, the green, the shapes of the plants…
the light, and then to think that we can climb the trees and the walls.”
The dance piece is called Dragontree Waterfall Tea and its creator is Jessica Fogel, a professor
of Dance at the University of Michigan. After choreographing a dance piece for a celebration at
an arboretum over the summer, she realized she just couldn’t imagine going back inside.
“At first I was going to do a snow dance, and then that seemed very unrealistic.”
Eventually she decided an indoor conservatory would be more practical and more comfortable for
both the dancers and the audience. She created this piece by absorbing the shapes, colors, smells,
and stories behind the plants in the garden. Movements the dancers make often mirror the
curves of a plant’s leaves. The dancers also use gesture, props, and pantomime to call attention to
how we use a plant.
“That the papyrus plants can become scrolls upon which messages are written, and that tea comes from these
camellia bushes and can be drunk, and that coffee does come from these beans and chocolate from the trees. So we do play with
those ideas as well, the function of the plants.”
Fogel says we often forget that we depend on plants and
nature for food, medicine, and even paper.
And she hopes this performance will remind people of
our reliance on the natural world. But some parts of the
dance just play with nature.
At one point in the performance, dancer Anna Beard climbs over a wall and down into a waterfall
in the conservatory.
“I step into it and bit by bit I work myself into the water until finally I’m completely immersed in the waterfall.”
She says it’s supposed to be a bit surreal and a bit surprising. She dances soaking wet with the
waterfall splattering down on her body.
“It’s more about existing with the setting and interacting with it instead of just placing some
movement in front of it as a backdrop.”
And unlike a performance in a theater, changes in the garden can affect what the dancers do or
don’t do. During rehearsals, a branch a dancer was supposed to lean against died and was cut off,
another plant grew to be in the way of a dancer’s arm, and some ground cover the dancers were
told they could walk on turned into a path of slippery mud.
Dancer Raphael Griffin says as she performs in the conservatory, she has to be very cautious of
the impact her movements make. The rock ledges are uneven and the plants fragile. And she
says that sense of the dancers treading lightly on the environment is something she hopes the
audience picks up on.
“Just a better awareness of nature and how the human body can interact with nature and yet not
ruin it either.”
Most of us will never get a chance to frolic in a conservatory like Raphael Griffin and the other
dancers in Dragontree Waterfall Tea , but as one dancer pointed out there’s nothing stopping us
from going out into our own backyards to enjoy and appreciate the line, movement, and form in
the natural world around us.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.