edition Juli-August 2023

Ecological Dancing

Natur als weit und unbegreiflich. "Telos" von Sandra Man. Foto: Sandra Man

Choreographer and author Beatrix Joyce delves into how dance artists are responding to the current climate crisis. She explores artistic approaches to nature ranging from romantic motifs of stability and peace to dystopian science fiction and fantastic visions of the future involving all forms
of life as equal communities.

Text: Beatrix Joyce


“And you may find yourself living in an age of mass extinction.”

This is the title contemporary thinker and philosopher on ecology Timothy Morton gave the first chapter of his book Being Ecological (2018). It’s a timely statement: our impact on the planet, with the naming of our current age as the Anthropocene[1], has become official and is, arguably, no longer reversible. We are living in times of climate crisis and planetary upheaval, with the traces of our activity etched into the soil and the consequences of our actions, our systems, our infrastructures coming ever closer. As a species, we have got to the point that it is not unreasonable to predict our own extinction. This is a pretty gloomy reality to get to grips with.

But how to imagine a future, without us in it? Will all else continue into eternity, while we disappear like a little blip on the dragged-out timeline of the universe? Dance artists, too, have been asking themselves these questions, drawing inspiration from contemporary thinkers who seek a renewed understanding of our planet. Morton, along with Donna Haraway (Staying with the Trouble, 2016) and others, is calling for a new mode of ecological thinking that does not place the human centre-stage. It’s a way of thinking with our environment, thereby acknowledging and celebrating the other life forms, beings and entities that make up our worlds. It’s a way of responding to the current state of crisis with expanded modes of perception and relating to our surroundings without the need to explain them away. It's about losing grip on truths, which include reductive factoids[2] on how much damage we have caused or when the planet’s status will tip beyond ‘our control’, and instead embracing that which we have taken for granted, that which is not us.

Much like the discovery that the sun does not orbit us, but vice versa, shifting our thinking outwards seems like a good plan. Certainly, it’s an inspiring starting point for many dance artists in Berlin and beyond. It also leads to some sticky dilemmas. When removing the human, we are immediately left with everything else: the non-human. The non-human seems to be an umbrella term for a rather vague understanding of all the beings that fall outside of us: plants, animals, rocks, fungi, bacteria… But also spoons, smartphones, and if you are so inclined, aliens… The list goes on. The non-human in this way, is perhaps less of a useful label than we might hope for, as it is too generic to get into the juiciness of specificity. Nonetheless, it is used often and has been adopted by the dance world to offer a sense of something that is not us but that we somehow wish to approximate.

The term non-human is currently most often used to refer to the natural world. Nature. A term that is perhaps even more sticky, as throughout history it has held many different meanings across cultures and contexts. Indigenous perspectives and philosophies in particular are fundamentally different to Western conceptions of nature. That said, there is one version of nature that keeps coming back in current dance works. Luscious forests, green, open fields, sun-kissed, rolling hills… A soft summer breeze, bumble bees buzzing, birds chirping chirpily. What we have here, is the picturesque. Morton describes it as follows:

“In the picturesque, the world is designed to look like a picture - like it's already been interpreted and packaged by a human. You can easily see what's what: there's a mountain over there, a lake, maybe there's a tree in the foreground. Funnily enough, the classic picturesque image, which I have just described, is on average everyone's favourite image - everyone on planet Earth, and maybe its ubiquity is why many people also find this image kitsch or obvious.” (Being Ecological, 2018, p. 24)

Nature, in the form of the picturesque, depicts a kind of nature that gives us humans a sense of safety, of comfort, of peace. But also a sense of freedom and abandon: we can let go of the constraints of society and, for a moment, revel in its wonder and beauty. It’s an ideal, that, in taking a one-sided approach to nature, creates distance between us and it, reinstating a separation that parallels the mind-body divide à la 17th century Descartes. It is not us and we are not it. But it’s there for us, and we can enjoy it when we please.

Some dance artists approach nature through the lens of the picturesque. In their works, nature, that otherwise gives us so much pleasure, is disappearing. They urge us to think of all those long, sunny afternoons in the forest and how they might be numbered. We become nostalgic, and rightly so. Indeed, forests, along with everything else, are perishing, which poses a problem and one that deserves attention. However, by addressing nature through solely the picturesque, other aspects of nature, such as those that thrust us into more complex reflections, are ignored: snake bites, poisonous berries, a new-born lamb that is refused by its mother. Harsh, but true. Nature has always posed dangers for us, and protecting ourselves from these dangers has played a crucial role in building our societies.

Yet, it is not surprising that dance artists are drawn to the picturesque: the experience of nature, from the perspective of a citizen of a major metropolis in the West in 2023, is limited to the changes in weather and an occasional outing to the countryside, or if you’re lucky, to a local Kleingarten. It does feel like we are living in the picturesque: nature is tame and under control. Until… a natural disaster strikes. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods, droughts, wildfires… These catastrophic events mark our daily news feeds, even when we seem to be safe in our direct surroundings. And we can feel it; wherever we are on the planet, nature can, in the blink of an eye, turn against us.

This idea has long inspired artists and shaped the popular imagination, particularly in the form of a much-loved genre: dystopian scifi. In a near or distant future, nature, often in tandem with technology, has gone amok. The orange skyline of Blade Runner (1982) or the green-tinted tinge of The Matrix (1999) form a backdrop where the environment has become harsh and deadly, and humans need to act up in order to survive. This grim future-view of our world and techno-induced aesthetics has been adopted by the dance field, too, in exciting ways. From elaborate, body-morphing costumes to spacey set designs, dancers roam dark and hazy futurescapes where the artificial and natural collide. Nature, here, is somewhere between entirely absent or unrecognisable, pointing us to where we could - or might, or will - end up.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is the equally fantastical, utopian future-view: what would society look like, if we got to shape it anew? With Cornucopia (2019), Björk’s concert tour and first stage production, she has gone all out in creating the most Björk-ish utopia imaginable, complete with a troop of flute fairies, exploding flower visuals and glowing mushroom platforms. Staying true to her unique musical style and her Iceland roots, she stages a place where all beings can coexist, in harmony with nature. Dance artists, similarly, are exploring future utopias by focusing on the relationships between people. By shaping non-conforming communities and collectives, they diversify the appreciation for other bodies and beings and ignite a deepened sense of awareness towards our surroundings. Often taking inspiration from feminist sci-fi from the minds of among others Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler, they rewrite gloomy future narratives by harnessing feelings of joy, connectedness and belonging.

In exploring different flavours of the utopian and dystopian, sliding between hope and despair, dance artists are envisioning futures for us and our world. In building these scenarios, they have often looked to nature, taking inspiration from the calls of extinct animals, the mycelial networks of fungi, abandoned industrial terrains or the microbiome that inhabits our lungs. Nature, inevitably, is a part of us. And we - as bodies, microbiomes, mass - are a part of it. New research shows that we are not singular beings. Our bodies are actually made up of thousands of living beings. In the same vein, we become what we plant, what we sow, what we eat. So, if we start to imagine nature not as a separate entity, like in the picturesque, but as something we cannot separate from ourselves, how could we approach it? How could we connect, perhaps even communicate?

Human communication is strongly shaped by language. The development of language, along with human consciousness, has long been believed to be what sets us apart from animals. But, according to recent research, language is not solely a human capacity. Humpback whales, for example, are thought to build phrases with sounds and song. Although we can identify patterns, we still can’t understand what they’re saying. The same counts for the animals that hang out in our gardens, from birds and dogs to bees and grasshoppers. This is not to say we cannot communicate with animals: many a dog-owner will prove you otherwise. Similarly, with a bit of poetic license, this notion could be extended to trees, grass and rivers. They, too, speak a language we don't understand.

But perhaps it is not so much about the what, but rather about the how. As we know from daily experience, communication between people is not just dependent on stringing coherent sentences together, but also on body language, facial expressions, emotional undertones in the voice and rhythm of the speaker. Not knowing what a dialogue partner is trying to say, or not say, even when speaking clearly, is one of the ills and gifts of being human. In order to communicate, we rely not only on language, but also on our senses, our movements, our memories, our perception. All of these means are made available to us in the body.

In seeking alternative ways to connect with nature, dance artists have been moving into nature, simply with their bodies. Diverse practices are emerging that relate to nature through movement, gesture and the gaze. With these simple ingredients and with choreographic tools such as imitation and embodiment, attunement and resonance, dance artists are taking time to observe, listen and be with and in nature. Entangling themselves in the tangled web of ecological thinking, they engender a renewed sense of empathy towards our environment. It’s perhaps through our human capacity for empathy and imagination that we might be able to access otherwise inaccessible natural worlds. As indigenous scholar Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:

“I wish that I could stand like a shaggy cedar with rain seeping into my bark, that water could dissolve the barrier between us. I want to feel what the cedars feel and know what they know.” (Braiding Sweetgrass, 2013, p. 295)

Feeling, sensing, being with nature and the non-human. Dance, in working with the material world of the body, the senses, time and space, can open doors to other realities and perspectives. So can it even shape a world, without us in it? When imagining a future, or anything for that matter, our interpretations, ideas, and visions naturally come into play. In imagining the non-human, we cannot escape our human viewpoint, as we are still there, doing the imagining. But, in working with movement, a fundamental principle that runs through all life on Earth, perhaps dance can help change the angle. Or for just a fleeting moment, it can offer us something other than the ‘just human’, while we sit with our approaching end.



Sergiu Matis, Maija Hirvanen, Sandra Man, Eva Meyer-Keller, Michela Filzi, Jared Gradinger, Angela Schubot, Thiago Granato, Florence Freitag, Milla Koistinen, B A G collective, Moritz Majce, Claire Vivianne Sobottke, Lena Gätjens, Agata Siniarska, Lena Binski


[1] The Anthropocene is a proposed geological era starting from when the impact of humans became visible in the planet’s geology and ecosystems. ‘Anthropo-’ is taken from the Ancient Greek ‘Anthropos’, meaning human.

[2] A factoid is a term used by Timothy Morton to refer to ‘truisms’ or statements that seem to be facts, often used by the media in the context of the climate crisis.

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