On Sharing Breath

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My work as choreographer dwells on the inseparability between breath and atmosphere. There are no firm boundaries between the air we breathe in, the air surrounding us, and the air enveloping the planet. This is as true for air as it is for water—there is only one global ocean, although by convention we divide the seas into named regions. When you move through the ocean of air enveloping you, you displace it and create dynamic unseen wakes in your midst.

Beginning with my dance, “Turbulence” (2011),1www.youtube.com/watch?v=_p-fLLnVpG0 I sought to visualize such patterns of air disturbance into kinetic sculptural forms. To do so, the six dancers deployed Loie Fuller-style costumes, disquieting the air and materializing its gyrations. An early innovator of performance technology, Fuller danced in robes fashioned from hundreds of yards of silk with embedded wands that extended her body’s motion into space. Serendipitously introduced to Fuller’s work in 1997, I became seduced by the genre for the way it imbues the doer with an expanded sense of self. Whirling in the Fuller-style garments, I felt, and still feel, integrated into the atmosphere as an eddy or gust.

With “Wind Rose” (2019),2www.youtube.com/watch?v=SU1kPOOcZQ8 a collaboration with composer Matthew Burtner, I focused on making the connections between breath and wind palpable. Wind is said to be the breath of the planet, a driver of earthly life. A windrose is a meteorological tool that graphically represents wind speed, direction and variability at a particular time and place. I thought, what if I designed choreography with the intention not to create human motion, but in order to create a windrose—an atmospheric snapshot—in the performing space? At the start of “Wind Rose,” the five dancers stand shoulder to shoulder and circle the stage so as to forge a human turbine. As the dancers accelerate their cyclonic motion, they push a swelling air wave towards the audience.

For another section, I choreographed eight motions, each of which was connected with a sound. The sounds were made either by the dancers whipping their Fuller-style costumes through the air or by the dancers’ breathy vocalizations. Matthew took my eight sound-breath-moves and composed a fugue. The dancers perform this music-motion score so that they stir up a breeze pattern—a fugue that can be felt, as well as seen and heard.

Wind has been changing along with climate. Locally, winds are becoming more chaotic. Globally, the high winds are slowing down and the polar jet stream is becoming wonky. But we are not in the habit of listening to the changing winds. One of the root causes of climate inaction has been a deep disconnect between people and their atmosphere. Many among the privileged live out their lives in climate-controlled habitats. Recently, though, even wealthy nations and the elite are starting to feel the heat. These days, no matter how deeply you bury your head in the sand, your butt will still get scorched.

As a way of grappling with life in the Anthropocene, I have been formulating an open inquiry called ecokinetics. I conceived ecokinetics as a choreographic corollary to ecoacoustics, an environmental mode of music composition pioneered by Matthew Burtner, my long-time musical collaborator. According to Matthew, “ecoacoustics embeds environmental systems into musical and performance structures using new technologies” (Burtner). Ecokinetics asks, how can we relate human movement to environmental systems? How can choreography (aesthetically patterned human motion) illuminate, echo, expand upon the movement vectors present at a site and help us better understand local ecologies? How can dance entwine with media technologies to embody the processes of natural systems? Ecokinetics is part personal movement practice, part pedagogical tool, and part performance methodology.

In its essence, ecokinetics repudiates the separation of humans from nature, a pervasive Colonialist mindset that needs constant undoing. In order to make progress on climate change, we must feel—truly and deeply—that we are part of the planet and not apart from it. This is the opposite of what the billionaires’ space club aims to accomplish. Bezos, Branson, and Musk, et al. view distance from Earth as a great privilege to be purchased. Their joyrides come, naturally, at the price of a huge carbon foot-stomp. Rather than exiting the atmosphere, ecokinetics advocates for entering it consciously; to dissolve oneself in it, while recognizing mutual coexistence with all other beings.

On March 3, 2020—only two weeks before COVID-19 shutdowns in the US but before virus-consciousness had pervaded our practices—I taught an introductory ecokinetics workshop at Williams College. We began with a lesson on mingling breath. I cringe in retrospect as it seems a perfectly-designed spreader event. I guided participants, all standing in social proximity, to tune into the physical sensation of the air around their bodies, to notice the subtle fluctuations of air pressure, flow, temperature, and humidity. My script then moved to the breath:

As you breathe, feel the atmosphere entering your body through your nostrils and mouth. Your blood comes into contact with this air and wicks the oxygen into your bloodstream . . . Meanwhile, you exhale and the air in your body is returned to the surrounding atmosphere. As we breathe in and out in a shared space, we create a common atmosphere, literally. This binds us as organisms in an ecosystem.
(Workshop notes, March 3, 2020)

This lesson served to make tangible our interconnectedness. There is no fixed dividing line between you and me. Breath is the blurry space between bodies. When we move together, we agitate our shared air, heat it up, make it more humid. Entering a studio after an energetic dance class, you will feel the lingering warmth, sweat, and breath. Unfortunately, as we breathe together, we also spew and intake aerosols containing viral particles. I can’t teach this workshop the same way again, but I don’t have to. COVID-19 taught us the lesson.

SARS-CoV-2 travelled from Wuhan, China via exhalation and inhalation in a breath chain that spread all over the globe. The trace-forms of the virus’s journey map our shared breath. During the pandemic, we learned to protect ourselves by breathing in our bubbles, wearing masks, averting our faces from strangers so as not to catch their exhale. We’ve experienced viscerally the basic truism of physics, philosophy, and many religions—that we are all connected. Theresa Brennan articulates it well in her book Exhausting Modernity: “all beings, all entities in and of the natural world, all forces, whether naturally or artificially forged, are connected energetically” (Brennan 41). In The Ecological Thought, climate change philosopher Timothy Morton describes this phenomenon as The Mesh, an invisible yet tangible network that connects everything and everyone to everything and everyone else in the universe (Morton 28-33).

The pandemic has made us fear our interconnectedness rather than revel in it. Nearly all solutions to the world’s problems require ramping up our “we’re in this together” mentality. While it’s brought our intermingling to light, COVID-19 has unfortunately cultivated individualist, survivalist modes of being.

Humans could not exist, or breathe, if it were not for the photosynthesis of other organisms. We often talk about forests as the “lungs” of the planet. Humans and trees are engaged in a symbiosis of respiration. Trees produce oxygen we need and our exhalations (and emissions) provide CO2 they need for respiration. (Although in shocking and dismal news, it was recently reported that the Amazon rainforest is now a net producer of CO2.)

Inspired by Richard Power’s The Overstory and Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree, among other pandemic readings, I started a new project, “Arbor,” exploring the connections between human and tree. We’re a lot alike, people and trees. We live in societies, we nurture our young, we communicate, and we have intelligence. There are important differences—trees live their lives at a slower pace than we do and they are rooted to the earth. Whereas we can run or drive away from a fire, they cannot.

“Arbor” began with a costume. First, designer Mary Jo Mecca constructed a Loie Fuller-style garment as a blank canvas. Then, textile artist Gina Nagy Burns painstakingly distilled the form of an American Elm, with the fractal patterning of branches, onto its voluminous panels of silk. We chose the American Elm for its fragility and persistence—nearly obliterated by the pathogenic Dutch Elm Disease, the species survives in a few stands, including most notably in Central Park near where I live.

I brainstormed with Matthew about the music. He settled on the idea of sonifying tree ring data from an American Elm log section. He condensed years of a tree’s life into a short percussive cycle. While the elm’s time was speeded up, I slowed mine down with technology, filming the dance from above at 120 frames per second or 1/5 actual speed. The math seemed right. Roughly, the average lifespan of a tree (living in a sustainable forest without being cut down) is 500 years or so. If humans can live for around a century, then trees are, more or less, five times as long-lived as we are.

I danced for two minutes stretched to ten. Like a tree, I stayed in one spot. The overhead view emphasized my upper body limbs and disappeared my legs and feet. As I stretched my arms wide and arched my back, all you see are the painted branches on my costume swirling like a timelapse of a tree. In The Overstory, one plot line involves several generations of farmers photographing a lone Chestnut Tree. Over many decades, the patterns of the Chestnut’s motions—its intentions and character—are revealed. My elm in “Arbor” emulates that fictional Chestnut.

While the textile painting on my costume depicts tree branches, in motion the fractal patterning is also suggestive of bronchial branching—that is, at times my costume looks like a giant set of lungs. The result is the simultaneous overlay of an amplified visualization of human breathing with the timelapse dance of a tree’s motion. “Arbor” is still unfolding and we are scheming multiple outcomes in film, photography, and performance.

“Existence is not an individual affair,” writes particle physicist and Queer theorist Karen Barad (ix). Beyond the fact that we are all connected is the commonplace, and yet continually startling, realization that no one is one. The existence of trees is inseparably entwined with that of the mycorrhizal fungi who provide networks for nutrient exchange and communication. Individual trees are woven together into collectives we call forests that can be viewed as superorganisms. Likewise, individual humans are collectively constructed from trillions of cells, some containing our own DNA and even more that are “foreign” bacteria. Humanity itself can be viewed as a superorganism comprised of billions of Homo sapiens, who together are significantly altering earth’s atmosphere. The challenge for any one person is to find the agency to nudge our collective humanity toward more sustainable ways of being. Billions of nudges are needed. Recognizing our shared breath, and its inseparability from atmosphere, is one way to enter the reckoning.

Works Cited

  • Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter, Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Brennan, Teresa. Exhausting Modernity: Grounds for a New Economy. Routledge, 2000.
  • Burtner, Matthew. “Ecoacoustics.” MatthewBurtner.com, Matthew Burtner, 2022, www.matthewburtner.com/ecoacoustics.
  • Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2010.
  • Powers, Richard. The Overstory: A Novel. W. W. Norton, 2018.
  • Simard, Suzanne. Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Alfred A. Knopf, 2021.
  • Sperling, Jody. Ecokinetics: A Dance Film Inquiry. Montclair State University, 2020.
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