This student run blog reflects writing by students from their own perspectives on topics related to sustainability. It does not reflect the position of the University.
Makena Rush will receive her BA in Social Ecology, BFA in Dance Performance, and Minor in Global Sustainability in the spring of 2021. She plans to pursue a career in marine conservation, sustainability, and artistic activism.
Dancing in Sea Winds: Exploring the Interconnected Relationships Between Dance and Nature; an Unexpected Gift of COVID-19
By Makena Rush
Published May 25, 2021
I have always leaned closely into the natural world. My greatest states of happiness exist when I am immersed in it– swimming beneath the marbled surface of the ocean. I believe that being born next to the sea has called me to the marine biosphere throughout my life; its mysterious beauty, ethereal power, and almost supernatural magnificence have always pulled at my heart, even when I am far away from the coasts.
My love of dance blossomed quickly when it first entered my life years later, and it was easy for me to dedicate so much of myself to training and performing. Like many artists, it was difficult for me to feel fulfilled- but the fleeting moments where I brimmed with joy and exhilaration were more than enough for me to continue my growth, alongside pursuing an education in ecology and sustainability.
In my first year of college, I was surprised to find out how little had been unlocked from within myself, in terms of my ability to express my spirit through dancing. I had concentrated so many years prior on refining my classical technique and visual presentation, but discovering that my performance quality was not entirely true to myself was definitely a jarring moment. It had always felt instinctive to tell everyone that I adore this art form because it can be such an expressive emotional outlet- but ironically, it was so difficult for me to actually reveal my emotions! As I watched my peers, I was taken aback by the rich fullness and giving nature of their movement. Their generous vulnerability to allow audiences to see their unique voices felt inspiring to me, and I knew that this would become one of my biggest goals to achieve in my career.
Although, unfortunately, my confidence only seemed to dwindle more and more within the mirrored walls of the studios, where pressures of comparing myself to everyone grew to become suffocating. When I saw no improvement, I felt hopelessly trapped and distant from becoming confident and expressive, despite how much I idolized this goal. Oftentimes, my only opportunity to restore my happiness and fulfillment during these times was returning to beach shores to heal myself again.
As COVID-19 overtook our lives, dancing in confined space only exacerbated this conflict, of course, as I felt my identity and vibrancy as a dancer being pulled away from me in the dimness of my garage. However, in November, I was able to experience one of my most pivotal performances at UCI- Brittany Woo’s One- a work emphasizing the theme of human relationships and connections to the environment. This piece naturally became very special to me- especially when I began to learn deeply in my other major, Social Ecology, about the interdependency between humans and the state of the Earth.
One of the most moving moments in the choreographic process happened when I filmed myself performing outside, on the edge of a secluded seascape. I remember it feeling surreal and dream-like– sea winds wrapping along my skin, sunlight pouring onto my upturned face, waves gently washing onto my legs. At the end of the piece, I fell to the ground, closing my eyes as my body rested into the sands surrounding me. I really felt like I was a part of my environment; no longer feeling enclosed, or hindered by my thoughts that would normally psyche me out while dancing. Later that day, when I watched videos of myself performing the contemporary ballet choreography, I surprised myself at how much my movement opened up and enlivened, after looking tense and restricted in my indoor practice videos. Uniting my love for dance and ecology had facilitated a meaningful personal breakthrough of expressing myself in a way that I had not been able to before.
Discovering this new branch of my relationship with nature was illuminating and exciting to me- and reminded me first of Isadora Duncan, and my admiration for her. As the “mother of modern dance”, her devoted spiritual journey involving her connection to the Earth has shaped her legacy, and profound impact on the trajectory of the dance world in general. In her work, The Art of the Dance, she describes how nature always has been, and always will be the great source of all art- beautifully embedding examples of how movements of “undulating” waves, winds, plants, and animals are inherently the “great fountain-head of movement” in dance.
Duncan saw motifs of art and dance in all parts of her life, claiming that “a woman is not a thing apart and separate from all other life, organic and inorganic. She is but a link in the chain, and her movement must be one with the great movement that runs through the universe” (Duncan, 1909). However, she acknowledges how easily we become distanced from our innate beginnings, of not only being connected to Earth’s movement, but also maintaining the purity in our artistic expression. Supporting this with her observations of children, Duncan noticed that students of three or four years coming to her school were “responsive to the exaltation of beautiful music, whereas a child of eight or nine [was] already under the influence of a conventional and mechanical conception of life imposed upon it by the pedagogues” (Duncan, 1909). In her school’s own pedagogic programs, she ensured that she first began with teaching small children to breathe, feel, and become one with the harmonies and movements of nature- rooting her teaching in the exaltation of life through dancing. In the early emergence of modern dance, Duncan sought to veer away from the long era of “intricate artifice”, and give into nature’s rhythm, freedom, and spontaneity once again. Her intentions to drastically shift the culture of dance were not motivated by a need for aesthetic improvement, but rather a need to return to the meaning of “true dance”- guiding human evolution back to the Earth to achieve a “more ideal future, which dreams of becoming God.”
It is important to recognize that there is great potential within bringing these ideals most traditionally associated with modern dance into the ballet world as well. A notable pioneer in this area, and world-renowned dance artist, Alonzo King, has spoken and brought this theme into conversation and work with his company, LINES Ballet. Although deeply rooted in cultural traditions, King’s work extends far beyond, into spiritual connections with the Earth and universe. In his TEDTalk, “We are larger than our Definitions”, he delves into how the process of identifying ourselves is strongly determined by our social conditioning, and inevitably limits us to being defined as solely physical bodies. “Our life forces and spirits are bursting to get out of this physical form,” he explains. “That is what creation and creativity is all about.” (King, 2017). His intention to “dissolve” from individual to universal, and let go the limitation of “the body as the self”, is personified in performances like Biophony (danced to a completely naturalist score), and There is No Standing Still (danced completely in nature-scapes)- where dancers offer audiences hope, and a chance to explore their own intuitive connections to the natural world. “When you see the dancers in nature, they’re back in the origin of dance,” he says. “It’s back into the larger picture. And it’s a reminder that we want to continue to expand.” (King, 2020).
The empathy that dance can invoke is already powerful, but can be intensified when there are intentions of intertwining nature. Kimerer L. LaMothe, an acclaimed dancer, professor, and scholar, draws from this need to expand the spirit, to re-frame dance as a practice and resource for Earth-friendly ways of thinking and perceiving. In her article, ‘Can They Dance?’ Towards a philosophy of bodily becoming, LaMothe, like Isadora Duncan, relates to Friedrich Nietzche’s perspective of how “dance is the fruit affirming all life” (Nietzche, 1954). She suggests that dance stirs a visceral response that bonds spectators to the dancer “in a surge of recognition or identification” that is “the power and joy of participating in the forces of nature” (LaMothe, 2012). This “entire symbolism” that audiences are able to experience is described as a “magic transformation” by Nietzche, guiding all of us towards spiritual and scientific truth.
With regards to efforts of environmental conservation, sustainability, and justice, there is untapped potential within artistic activism and dance. LaMothe claims that in order to cultivate and mutually-beneficial relationships between humans and nature, we must create this transformed sensory awareness of movements from where we originate- that honor both our own bodies, and our sources of living (LaMothe, 2012). More significantly, dance should not only be a truthful embodiment of ourselves, but also of the worlds and culture that surround us.
Lindsay Gilmour is a passionate performer, choreographer, improviser, and educator that we are so fortunate to have in the UCI Dance family. From being able to learn from her in the studio, and through her writing, research, and discussions with me, it is clear that empathy for our local Earth can surface naturally through sensitively embodying it in our art form. Gilmour believes that we have so much to learn from our natural environments as a whole. We must be reminded that they are always alive, with an active consciousness and history that is ever-reflected through us as humans. She points out the natural patterns that have been embedded within us over time- the creases in our palms identical to river valleys stretching across landscapes, the way our breath moves as the ocean swells. Thus, rich stories of the natural world can be seen and expressed through our own existence and movement.
Born out of a renewed need for wildness again during the pandemic, Gilmour returned to nature as a disciple of Authentic Movement, repetitively visiting a particular area of nature near her home in Southern California. Here, she discovered a new reciprocal and connected relationship with nature- through witnessing, listening, exchanging, speaking, echoing, and moving as one with it. Over the course of a year, each day’s ritual allowed her a deeply intimate knowledge of the animate land around her. These mystical conversations facilitated a heightened sensory awareness, perception, centering, resilience, and inner expansion that followed and resonated within her long after she physically parted from the space. From these experiences, she is reminded that she is an intricate microcosm of the ever-changing whole (Gilmour, 2021).
Ultimately, with these inspirations in mind, I am resolute that as dancers, we must continue to find our way back to remembering and embodying our own essences of the natural world again, along with taking active roles to respect and protect it. Seeing ourselves and our environments as one entity not only allows us to fully open and express our identities as people, but also to bring holistic compassion, consciousness, and healing into our world. The gift of redefining and deepening my personal connection to the Earth has been an unexpected and beautiful gift brought to me during the pandemic, and one that I will always cherish.
I will never forget the initial feeling of dancing by the ocean, in the warm sun, and uplifting sea breezes. There is still so much more of myself that I can release through my dancing, but I am grateful for this opportunity to realize another method of reinforcing my confidence, expressivity, and acceptance of myself as a dancer and person. Adding more diverse and spiritually attuned approaches to our dance practices, and allowing ourselves the freedom to dance and explore outside in any natural environment can help mold new generations of dancers, who form healthier relationships with themselves, their art, and their surrounding world.
Abram, D. (2010), Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York, NY: Random House.
Abram, D. (1997), Spells of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a more than Human World. New York, NY: Random House.
Daly, A. (1994). Isadora Duncan’s Dance Theory. Dance Research Journal, 26(2), 24-31. doi:10.2307/1477914
Duncan, I. (1928). The Art of the Dance (S. Cheney, Ed.). New York – Theatre Arts Books. http://acceleratedmotion.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/The-Dance-and-Nature.pdf
Gilmour, Lindsay. “Interview with Scholar, Dancer, and Choreographer, Lindsay Gilmour”. 9 March. 2021.
Gilmour, L. (n.d.). Nature as Witness: Authentic Movement and the Local Animate Earth.
Gilmour, Lindsay. “The Weight of the Moon on Earth.” 25-28 Feb. 2021, University of California Irvine, School of the Arts, Dance Visions Concert Performance.
Hamilton, L. (2020, May 11). Isadora Duncan as Spiritual Body and Revolutionary Motion in the Works of John Sloan and Abraham Walkowitz. The Classic Journal. https://theclassicjournal.uga.edu/index.php/2020/05/11/isadora-duncan-as-spiritual-body-and-revolutionary-motion-in-the-works-of-john-sloan-and-abraham-walkowitz/
LaMothe, K. L. (2012), ‘“Can They Dance?” Towards a philosophy of bodily becoming’, Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices 4: 1, pp. 93–107, doi: 10.1386/jdsp.4.1.93_1
Laubacher, K. (2020, July 7). Alonzo King LINES Ballet Reconnects with Nature in This 5-Part Video Series. Pointe Magazine. https://www.pointemagazine.com/alonzo-king-lines-ballet-video-series-2646289374.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2
King, Alonzo, speaker. We Are Larger than Our Definitions | TEDTalk. TEDTalk Archive, 21 Apr. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YpMUCwOO-yk&t=217s.
Nietzsche, F. (1954), The Portable Nietzsche (ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann), New York, NY: Penguin.
UCI Community Resilience Projects, director. Commissioned by UCI Sustainability ‘Hire’ Knowledge Documentary. ‘Hire’ Knowledge Documentary, UCI Office of Sustainability , 14 May 2020, vimeo.com/418616558 .
Wray, S. Ama. “‘Hire’ Knowledge and the Anthropocene.” 21-23 Feb. 2019, University of California Irvine, School of the Arts, Dance Visions Concert Performance.