Can Art Stop Climate Change?

Amidst modern-day controversy of global warming, dance choreographers find new ways to encourage activism

What is the purpose of art? This answer may be different for everyone, yet all are valid. Perhaps one of its most prevalent objectives in our society today is to provide commentary on social and political issues. Distinguished dance choreographers such as Martha Graham, José Limón, and Paul Taylor created political work on the issues and controversies from their time period for decades. For context, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at political dance throughout the 1900’s.

How about, then, dancing about climate change? As the Earth’s polar ice caps continue to melt and climate change continues to grow in relevancy, activism seeking direct political action on the issue has risen in frequency. Breaking from the mold of organizing, picketing, and marching, creative minds have found an alternative outlet through which they can speak their pieces—dance. 

Jody Sperling, dancer and founder of Time Lapse Dance, exemplifies the unique fusion of dance and activism in our present day. For example: her work Ice Floe, in which she danced atop an ice cap in the Arctic, sought to bring attention to the dire situation the environment is in. One of her most resourceful projects to date was realized this fall—Park(ing) Day, in which groups of dancers performed a variety of pieces on a small stretch of asphalt in Manhattan that is normally used as parking space. Signs and vision boards posted at Park(ing) Day allowed visitors to visualize and interact with the possibilities of a brighter, greener future in New York.

NEW YORK, NY 09/20/2019 SIGNAGE PROMOTING CLIMATE CHANGE ADVOCACY AT PARK(ING) DAY As part of Park(ing) Day on the West Side of Broadway between 100th and 101st Streets on Saturday, September 20, an annual global event where citizens, artists, and activists transform curbside parking spots into public space, signs are displayed to promote climate change activism. -Photo by Madalyn Rupprecht

Sperling’s concern about climate change was the inspiration behind this event. “I feel that each one of us has to do everything that we can in the arena that we know about to remake ourselves,” said Sperling, “and all the structures and institutions around us and drive them to be more sustainable.” The event was inclusive for its participants as well as presenters; Sperling’s well-rounded programming included performances by artists of various backgrounds.

Established artists like Nicole McClam, Aviva Geismar, and dancers of The Sokolow Theater/Dance Ensemble enlivened the event and, altogether, formed a unique assemblage. Each of these performances offered another perspective into the complexities of climate change as told through movement.

NEW YORK, NY 09/20/2019 ARTISTS PERFORMING AT PARK(ING) DAY Choreographer Nicole McClam performs her solo “It’s All Good Hair” which makes space for a conversation between a black woman and her hair, and the chemicals in hair products and how they affect the environment. McClam performs this work as part of Park(ing) Day, an annual global event where citizens, artists, and activists transform curbside parking spots into public space. -Photo by Madalyn Rupprecht

Nicole McClam’s work, titled “It’s All Good Hair”, is a “natural hair journey,” says McClam. The work explores her struggles as a black woman with assimilating to white culture as the chemicals that she uses in her hair are damaging not only to her hair but also to the environment.

NEW YORK, NY 09/20/2019 ARTISTS PERFORMING AT PARK(ING) DAY Choreographer Aviva Geismar performs a new solo work-in-progress “Trembling Between Poles” which addresses the fear and anxiety of the individual caused by our current geopolitical crises. Geismar performs this work as part of Park(ing) Day, an annual global event where citizens, artists, and activists transform curbside parking spots into public space. -Photo by Madalyn Rupprecht

Aviva Geismar’s work, “Trembling Between Poles”, also describes the struggles of an individual amidst this global crisis of climate change.

NEW YORK, NY 09/20/2019 ARTISTS PERFORMING AT PARK(ING) DAY The Sokolow Theatre/Dance Ensemble performs excerpts from the work “Rooms” which portrays the psychic isolation and unfulfilled desires of people living in the big city. STDE performs this work as part of Park(ing) Day, an annual global event where citizens, artists, and activists transform curbside parking spots into public space. -Photo by Madalyn Rupprecht

The Sokolow Theater/Dance Ensemble’s performance of excerpts from “Rooms”, a work set to a raucous third stream piece by jazz musician Kenyon Hopkins, captured and resonated with the city residents in attendance at Park(ing) Day. The work portrays the ramifications of living in a large city, like psychic isolation and unfulfilled desires. These consequences are often amplified as the effect of climate change is so largely felt in these densely populated cities.

Perhaps in the midst of climate change awareness, the harming effect of the city population on the environment hits a little too close to home for New Yorkers. Nonetheless, these things serve as an inspiration. New York City is home to an incredible array of artists.

Lynn Neuman’s Brooklyn-based company Artichoke Dance makes and presents art solely on climate change.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK 11/16/2019 LYNN NEUMAN IN REHEARSAL WITH HER DANCERS Lynn Neuman, director of Artichoke Dance, listens to her dancers while in rehearsal for works “Visioning Bodies” and “Liberate the Earth” in her home studio in Park Slope, Brooklyn on Saturday, November 16 in preparation for Association of Performing Arts Professionals showcase in January, where the company will present work on climate change. -Photo by Alex Valdes

Neuman’s work has a large emphasis on engagement; she often presents her work in the troubled areas on which her research is based. 

Her site-specific works allow audiences to be a part of the change that she is advocating in her works – “About 60, maybe 70 percent of our performances happen outdoors and I like that – I feel like it’s more effective because it enables us to establish a different relationship with our audience,” Neuman says. Artichoke Dance often hosts community engagement events such as beach clean-ups. These events raise climate change awareness in areas where it is not otherwise discussed. 

Tangible change is already visible in some communities. On a side street in downtown Montclair, New Jersey, a wooden structure with “Public Space” carved into its sides was erected and stood for weeks in what was once a parking space.

MONTCLAIR, NEW JERSEY 10/25/2019 PUBLIC SPACE REDEFINED A colorful wooden structure occupying pavement space offers benches, tables, and cozy atmosphere for pedestrians. – Photo by Alex Valdes

The structure, a simple sitting area with bar stools and benches, promoted and fostered positive and productive reallocation of public space, and contributed to the area’s already vibrant and lively landscape.

The very concept of rethinking the ways in which we use urban space is also in effect all over the world—in Mexico City, Bogotá, and other cities worldwide, vertical gardens on the sides of skyscrapers and on highway pillars are becoming increasingly more common. Park(ing) Day is not an isolated event. Awareness around climate change is spreading through many communities in various mediums, and art is just one very effective method of communication. Montclair State Dance Professor Kathleen Kelley believes deeply in this.

“Artists are able to help society as a whole imagine new ways of being.”

Kathleen Kelley

This is a testament to the power of activism, and to the idea that Neuman’s and Sperling’s efforts are not in vain. Just as dance pioneers created political works in the wake of the societal crises of their time, Jody Sperling and Lynn Neuman have made it their priority to use their talents to open people’s eyes to the complexities and urgency of climate change through the language of movement.

Created by Madalyn Rupprecht and Alex Valdes

In hopes of raising awareness on climate change and supporting artists who create art in order to better our society.

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK 11/16/2019 LYNN NEUMAN AND AUTHORS Lynn Neuman of Artichoke Dance poses for a photo post-rehearsal in her Park Slope apartment with Madalyn Rupprecht and Alex Valdes. – Photo by Marielys Burgos Meléndez

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