Learning about climate change, through dance

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How best to educate people on climate change is a pervasive question. For the dancers of CoMotion Dance Project, their performance, “Changing Balance, Balancing Change” points to kinesthetic learning as the best way.

In other words, get the audience involved in the dance and through it, they might learn something.

The interactive, educational dance was choreographed by CoMotion Director and University of Montana dance professor Karen Kaufmann. Kaufmann credits Melissa Sladek of Crown of the Continent Research Center with initiating the project.

After seeing another of Kaufmann’s dances, “Fire Speaks the Land,” about wildfires, Sladek called Kaufmann about developing a performance about climate change, Kaufmann said.

“It’s very much a challenge to educate the public,” Kaufmann said, “interactive dance performances and the arts are a good way.”

When approaching the themes of this performance, “I grappled with the material,” Kaufmann said. The performance is geared towards a middle and elementary-school aged audience. It relies on a combination of performance and audience involvement to make climate change science accessible to youngsters.

To illustrate how a change of only one degree is so significant compared to previous global temperature changes, for example, the audience follows the dancers through a motion beginning crouched down and extending back to standing with the arms over the head. Depending on which change was being illustrated, it was done in either one count or in 10 counts.

The dancers also address the audience specifically, explaining how their movements are interpretations of various concepts, from the slow, powerful motion in illustrate the formation of a glacier, to the enthusiastic leaping of the “scientist” character, thrilled when two “camper” characters begin to understand the impact of climate change.

Kaufmann has choreographed a number of pieces with an educational premise.

“I wanted to connect with curriculum. I’m interested in arts integration, and being able to educate and entertain simultaneously,” Kauffman said.

She is no stranger to bringing science to the medium of dance.

In 1995, Kaufmann choreographed “Dancing Waters,” a piece that educated the audience on the water cycle. “I realized I was quite taken with choreographing around ideas,” she said. “We take an idea and abstract it around our art form.” Some of the ideas Kaufmann has choreographed include not only environmental themes like wildfires, the water cycle, and climate change but also Newton’s laws of motion, geometry, and grammar.

“Changing Balance/ Balancing Change” was a collaborative effort. Kaufmann worked closely with musician Steve Kalling to write the script.

Kalling then musically scored the performance. Kaufmann choreographed with the help of a few guest collaborators as well as the dancers themselves. In total, Kaufmann estimated about 50 people helped bring the performance together, including snow scientists, climate educators, artists, musicians, photographers, and costume designers.

Kaufmann said the climate change piece has been the most challenging dance to put together. “The material, the science is complex,” she said. “We didn’t want to make the text too didactic. We wanted to educate in such a way that we could engage and entertain.”

A big question that went into planning was how to emotionally connect with the audience.

“We tried to personalize it so people come away asking ‘how can I change?’ because it doesn’t matter if you won’t make changes yourself,” Kaufmann said.

To that end, one of the dances in the performances shows the dancers tangled up in an extension cord, attempting to break free, while another places the dancers in a freshwater glacier stream as fish, to show the importance of ecology.

The interactive dance was performed at Lake McDonald Lodge and the West Glacier Community Building last week.

“It’s such a great privilege to perform in a place so dear to my heart, and a landscape where changes due to climate change is so evident,” Kaufmann said,

The performance’s next tour will be in Whitefish and then Missoula in September, but Kaufmann hopes to see it continue to expand from there, regionally, nationally, or even internationally.

“It could be performed at climate change conferences,” she said, “or an audience member suggested it would be a good keynote address.”

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