by Steve Desroches
For most dancers the biggest worry during a performance might be pulling a muscle or slipping on stage, but for Jody Sperling it was frostbite and polar bears. The New York based dancer and choreographer has done something no one else can claim; she danced on a polar ice cap in the Arctic.
Sperling was chosen to be a choreographer-in-residence aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy as part of a unique public outreach program to educate the public about climate change. While scientists aboard the vessel studied ice floes and phytoplankton, Sperling sought inspiration from an ecosystem so few people get to see, never mind dance in. And her dance company, Time Lapse Dance will be presenting the creation that came from that icy inspiration at the Payomet Center for the Performing Arts with the performance of Bringing the Arctic Home this weekend.
Sperling traveled to the Arctic on a 43-day expedition at the invitation of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute oceanographer Larry Pratt and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Robert Pickart. Part of the National Science Foundation’s grant that funded the research trip are monies dedicated to “communication outreach,” acknowledging that the general public is not going to read science journals, but will go see plays, films, art exhibits, and in Sperling’s case, dance performances. So in addition to oceanographers, marine biologists, and climatologists, there were also writers, photographers, visual artists, and radio documentarians on the Healy. It’s an intersection of art and science, each serving each other.
“Scientists and artists have a lot in common, I think,” says Sperling. “We both pursue what inspires rather than doing something for the money. And scientists and artists both seek the truth.”
Of course the truth is climate change is real. And while the scientists on the Healy apply what they learned to their ongoing research, Sperling and the dancers with the Time Lapse Dance company have created a piece that captures the dynamic nature of the Arctic as well as its fragility as the Earth warms and the ice melts. Inspired by Loïe Fuller, an American modern dance pioneer who used long flowing fabric costumes and the film projection and lighting technology of the 1890s in her work, Sperling and Time Lapse Dance also use projected imagery, in this case of the Arctic, to present a multimedia dance performance.
“She would use costumes to expand the body,” says Sperling. “She was the first to use this new cinematic technology in dance. It’s a genre that has always captivated me. For 20 years I’ve been energized by what she created. There are so many opportunities to incorporate the natural world into dance using Fuller’s work as an inspiration. When you use fabric in the work it really helps visualize the forces of nature on the stage.”
Listening to Sperling speak about her trip to the Arctic is riveting, as she speaks both about the artistry of the natural world and the scientific achievements of humanity with the grace and ease of, well, a dancer. Spending six weeks on a research vessel Sperling heard marine biologists speak about phytoplankton with the affection others reserve for cute and cuddly pandas or a baby chimpanzee. It changed her, not only as an artist, but also as an individual looking to help steer humanity toward solutions for addressing the challenges of climate change and, in the case of the United States, where many citizens don’t believe in or choose to ignore the scientific consensus that global warming is happening largely because of human behavior, convince us that it’s past time to do something about it.
Just as Fuller’s visionary work over 100 years ago did, the Arctic has also moved Sperling to new creative heights. It did not take long for her to notice the pattern in the Arctic of the water, ice, and air. There is a natural choreography to it all. While stark, it was also breathtakingly beautiful. That experience alone would be an adventure of a lifetime. But Sperling wanted to dance on the ice, to dance right on this frozen landscape that is so vital to our planet and to every living thing on it. Weather, safety concerns, and those polar bears, initially made Sperling think it could never happen. But it did. Twelve times in fact. Right on the ice in the Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Strait that divides Alaska and Russia. And to really feel the true nature of this gorgeous, hostile environment, Sperling performed without any special gear, braving the frigid temperatures to absorb the whole experience.
“I was able to dance the limits of what my body could endure every day,” says Sperling. “And then I had the very difficult task of figuring out how I could show how endangered it all is.”
Time Lapse Dance presents Bringing The Arctic Home at the Payomet Performing Arts Center, 29 Old Dewline Rd., North Truro on Saturday, August 6 and Sunday, August 7 at 8 p.m. For tickets ($20/$30 for preferred seating) and information, go to the box office, call 508.487.5400, or visit payomet.org.