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“Sustainability” is the word on everyone’s lips these days.  Our financial practices, healthcare system, our agriculture and energy use, nearly all facets of our infrastructure are on the table for reform.  Invigorated by economic pressures, environmental protection has emerged as a popular campaign not so much out of concern for ecological health, but because it is increasingly framed as financially sound and even patriotic.

Jamal Jackson Dance Company's <i>Supplant</i> at Solar One. Photo by Eric Bandiero.
Jamal Jackson Dance Company's Supplant at Solar One. Photo by Eric Bandiero.

Dancers learn the importance of sustainable practices early in their training.  Injuries are costly, can be emotionally devastating, and shorten an already brief career.  As artists generally intuit and react to imbalances and injustices within society, dancers in particular are inclined to respond to green efforts.  It’s a short jump from being deeply connected to one’s body, a living system expending energy and demanding care and rest, to understanding a parallel in the management of the planet.  Not surprisingly, dance venues and artists are answering calls for ecologically stable practices in innovative ways.

Solar One (S1) is a space intended to demonstrate the possibilities of green buildings in urban environments.  Its roof is covered with $10,000 of 40 watt solar panels to collect and store energy.  Currently, S1 is an unassuming, 500 square foot building located at 23rd Street and the East River, at the top edge of Stuyvesant Cove Park, adjacent to an outdoor stage.  Plans are underway, however, for the completion of Solar Two (S2), the first carbon-neutral, net-zero energy use building in New York City.  An arts and education center ten times larger than S1, S2 will be a resource for schools, artists, and the public to learn about recycling, green investing, and other environmental initiatives.

Jill Sigman in <i>Our Lady of Detritus</i> at Solar One. Photo by Bethany Wall.
Jill Sigman in Our Lady of Detritus at Solar One. Photo by Bethany Wall.

For now, the biggest draw to the site is its free arts programming.  This past July, S1 hosted the fifth annual Solar Powered Dance Festival, featuring fourteen choreographers over two weekends.  Shows were held early (6:00 PM) so lighting came directly from the sun, while all sound was powered by S1’s stored energy.  Artists ranged from former Cirque de Soleil performer Sara Joel to the Persian-influenced campani javedani.  Billed as a family event, children comprised a large portion of the audience.  After the performance I saw, performer Jamal Jackson led an all-ages African dance mini-workshop, and participants eagerly hopped on stage to jump and stomp in the open air. 

Dina Elkan, Events and Marketing Coordinator, explained to me that the festival is “mainly intended to provide an interesting opportunity to emerging choreographers to present their work, for free, in an accessible public space. We try to encourage submissions from as diverse a group of artists as possible,” because it is impractical to bring in artists from outside the city.  The resulting dance sampler probably has something for everyone.

Using what is available—whether it’s local artists or the sun’s rays—seems to be at the core of the S1 ethos.  Arts Director Tamar Rogoff has called artists a “wasted resource” that S1 intends to utilize more fully.  Artists bring audiences, which make it easier to spread the word about solar power.  Even the stage, a former Tommy Hilfiger catwalk reconfigured for performance, is “recycled.”

S1 is a multidisciplinary space, hosting comedy, performance art, and plastic bag crochet workshops, but dance features heavily on the calendar.  In addition to the Solar Powered Dance Festival, Alice Farley Dance Theater has performed several works there, and the Sun to Stars South Asian Festival in August featured flamenco and Indian kathak dance along with live music and other arts.  Rogoff, herself a choreographer best known recently for her works with Claire Danes at PS122, has been instrumental in bringing dance to S1.  Another reason for the dance presence is practical: ambient noise—from the FDR, boats, and aircraft—makes traditional theater difficult to present. 

Across the river in Williamsburg, the Center for Performance Research (CPR) is a 4,000 square foot, dance-focused arts facility striving for ecological and financial sustainability.  It is the first fully L.E.E.D. (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building of its kind in Brooklyn, meaning that a third party of professionals has approved its high performance in areas such as energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts. 

CPR is the product of the overlapping visions of co-founding dance artists Jonah Bokaer (Chez Bushwick) and John Jasperse (Thin Man Dance), and Greenbelt condominium developer Derek Denckla and architect Gregory Merryweather.  Denckla and Merryweather wanted to support a non-profit arts organization within their mixed-use residential and commercial project.  Bokaer was simultaneously planning to establish a permanent arts facility, and Jasperse provided the link between the two.  The hope is that CPR is financially as well as environmentally sustainable, as it is efficient to maintain and subsidized by condo sales.

  Unlike S1, which utilizes the arts to promote its green initiatives, CPR is first and foremost an artist resource.  A New York Times article published before its opening in 2008 highlighted its commitment to supporting artistic freedom and experimentation.  Notably, the space features a large basement storage space for cumbersome sets that are impractical for most contemporary dance performances in New York.  Rehearsal space is also available starting at the relatively low rate of $8 an hour, and CPR hosts movement classes and workshops as well as dance and mixed media performances, readings, and visual art exhibits.

Neither CPR nor S1 are exclusively devoted to presenting art with environmental content; S1 reaches for audience accessibility and participation (including riverside dance jams) while CPR focuses on preserving artistic integrity.  Individual choreographers are increasingly emerging to address green themes, however.  Jill Sigman’s newest showing, Our Lady of Detritus, is a “portable performance about trash and transcendence.”  Performed outdoors at five venues in four boroughs, including Solar One—and concluding October 15 at the Fashion Center BID—the free, interactive work encourages viewers to reflect on their own relationship with trash.  Additionally, costumes, props and set materials are made from found materials, some from the garbage in and around Sigman’s building, some recycled from winter’s Zsa Zsa Land performances.  Power for the sound is largely solar and human powered.

Choreographer Jennifer Monson has approached green material in a different way.  She writes, “My dance work navigates the territory between what is wild and civilized.”  Monson has built up a body of work based on investigations into space and nature—animal migrations, water flows, mapping terrain—and the real or metaphorical ways that these correspond to human activities.  These relationships, to me, represent the fundamental elements of ecology itself, and the human challenges of coexisting within a larger system (though her inquiry is not limited to this).  Monson also founded iLAND (Interdisciplinary Lab for Art, Nature and Dance), housed in the East Village, as a platform for collaborative research in art and environment in an urban context.  iLAND’s residencies, awarded this year to the collectives Waterways and StratoSpore, provide opportunities for public performance and information sharing.  Waterways, a collaboration between The League of Imaginary Scientists and Danish choreography collective E.K.K.O., is offering interactive arts experiences in various locations through early October.  StratoSpore, a group that includes a choreographer, architect, and mycologist, will explore “collective knowledge about local NYC ecosystems and urban sustainability” beginning in October.

Outside New York, Earthdance in western Massachusetts is at the forefront of the dance-environmentalism overlap.  A rural retreat, Earthdance originated as an intentional community and continues to value social justice and play as strongly as ecological sustainability and artist development.  Earthdance operates yearlong, holding classes, workshops, and artist residences.  In 2008, Earthdance launched the SEEDS (Somatic Experiments in Earth, Dance + Science) Festival, a two-week summer event with interdisciplinary workshops on dance, ecology, and lifestyle intersections.

As S1 and CPR serve as templates for future green arts infrastructure, Earthdance is a resource for individual artists investigating environmentalism—in their work as well as in their everyday lives.  Sigman and Monson both have connections to the SEEDS Festival; this year Sigman performed Our Lady of Detritus and Monson co-lead a dance exploration of the watershed.  Notably, collaboration and education are fundamental to all of the projects, laying the groundwork for increased awareness and innovation within the dance community.


Mary Love Hodges


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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