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Conversing with Nature, Confronting Extinction.

Time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.

Rachel Carson

Humanity has managed collaterally to decimate the natural environment and draw down the nonrenewable resources of the planet with cheerful abandon. We thereby accelerated the erasure of entire ecosystems and the extinction of thousands of million-year-old species. If Earth’s ability to support our growth is finite —and it is —we were mostly too busy to notice.”

Edward O. Wilson, The Future of Life. 2002

First there was global warming. Then came climate change. This year it was finally described as a climate crisis. Raging fires, floods, extreme hurricanes due to rising ocean temperatures, droughts and heat waves, along with melting glaciers and rising sea levels, thrust the phrase and the language into the common vernacular. Political candidates at last spoke up prodded by the very young. Generation Z (aptly named as the last ones!) took up the rallying cry, awakened to the reality that their very future is in question. The facts are all there and yet denials abound propelled by fear, greed and economic self-interest. Underscored by Western civilization’s hierarchal belief that we are the masters over nature, not a part of its ecosystem subject to its rules, the claim that technology will save us only adds to the hubris. In the Anthropocene epoch the Sixth extinction is already underway and we are part of it. Only deep structural changes in how we live and what we value will suffice. This becomes a matter of consciousness, conscience and empathy.

All this raises the question of what can an artist, and a performing artist in particular, do to illuminate the subject when there is already so much rhetoric out there, both scientific facts and subjective fictions employed by all the power players – political, environmental, corporate. Language is clearly not the answer. Instead the power of live performance in its ability to transport on an emotional, sensual and spiritual level, offers the possibility of communicating on another level of perceptual consciousness.

Enter Sankai Juku, the Japanese Butoh dance company founded by Ushio Amagatsu in 1975. Amagatsu, who directs, choreographs and designs all of the company’s works, defines Butoh as a “dialogue with gravity.” The relationship of the body to gravity and the relationship between gravity, the earth and the environment have been major themes throughout his work. In his own pursuit of “an internal nature universal to all humans,” he has continuously developed and searched for the way to “move towards a new realm” through the language of the body in space. In the present context the word gravity takes on a double meaning.

This brings us to Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land, a breathtaking new work in which an abstract vision of the infinite carries us beyond the concreteness of verbal language. The word Meguri refers to that which “moves or circulates in accordance with some prescribed order or system” such as the rotation of seasons and earth’s transformations throughout time. Like a perfect Zen paradox it encapsulates the essence of duality and unity, beingness and impermanence embodied in the evolutionary cycle of birth and death and rebirth. A profound meditation not only on the passage of time, but our place in nature and the evolution of life on earth, the performance was both a hallucinogenic dream and a lamentation. As an epic visual poem that seamlessly traversed darkness and light, it was set against a wall of projected images of fossils of the Paleozoic creatures known as sea lily (crinoid), bringing to mind the impending threat of extinction in the warming ocean, and our own potential demise. How small and fragile the human body appears against the forces of nature.

Any description of this work will fall short of the immersive experience and the fluidity of its unfolding. Part I The Call from the Distance was an undersea journey that took us into an unfamiliar realm of life, yet one necessary for our own existence. In a shaft of light a single figure appeared on the left clad only in a long sarong skirt. There was a deep thunderous boom, then a long extended tone, breath exhaled, a melodic line as the figure moved slowly across the stage as if swimming through space. Pausing in the center, he looked upward following the line of his raised arm, finger pointing to the sky above, and voices somewhere beyond.

In a pool of golden light, dancers lay on their backs head-to-head in a circle, their arms and legs extended upward, undulating like tentacles in currents of water, as if resting at the bottom of the sea. Limbs, hands, feet opened and closed to the sound of water and waves. They resembled a single living organism – octopus, squid, jellyfish, a coral reef. They rose up, bodies folding and unfolding, mouths agape. They bend and spin as the music throb, their skirts flowing as if part of the body, living tissue like fins. They spin rapidly in formation to a pulsing beat.

PHOTOS: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

There were six more parts — II Transformation on the Sea Bottom, III Two Surfaces, IV Premonition-Quietude-Tremblings, V Forest of Fossils, VI Weavings, VII Return. The following images are selected moments out of what feels like the ebb and flow of a dream that spans geological time. Light floods the fossil encrusted stone wall. The performers are androgynous, otherworldly, with their chalky white bodies and shaved heads. Gongs echo, humming sounds resonate like breathing, wind blowing. They sink down and rise to standing, palms up, fingers spread, feeling their way into space, almost plant-like. They tremble and twitch as if charged with an electrical current.

PHOTOS: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

They appear in a flood of white light with green underskirts. Two raise their arms facing the fossil wall, exploring it with their hands as if reading it. The wall is the holder of knowledge, a record of passage of what lived and died. There is a clattering sound like falling rocks. They raise their arms to the wall in sweeping gestures, paying homage as a slow bass line grows into orchestral strings. In green light their arms open like wings, the movement slow, deliberate. A heartbreaking melody rises as four return to the ground as at the beginning, praying to the earth. Darkness.

Sankai Juku’s performers are eloquent shape-shifters carrying a genetic history from the ancient past into an unknown future. The message is in the body, the body bound to earth by gravity, by water and air, and all the elements that make it part of the living planet. This state of being is visually transmitted to the body of the viewer where it is experienced emotionally and physically. And so we awaken as if returning from space travel where we have encountered another world and had a glimpse of the sublime. But this is our world revisited, a message from the depths of where we have come from, what we are a part of, and what we are in the process of destroying. The dying coral reefs, the many-armed being that looks you in the eye and knows you, the plastic polluted ocean, the forest in flames, and the specter of extinction of everything that makes our lives possible including our own humanity.

PHOTOS: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

If Meguri was a visual incantation supported by an atmospheric soundtrack, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and composer/sound artist Gustavo Matamoros’s performance Bow Hard at the Frog was a purely aural elicitation of the non-human world and our place in it. Rather than a theatrical presentation on a proscenium stage, the artists transformed the informal white box space of a gallery into an immersive sonic environment in which the listening audience was invited to be companion explorers on Lonberg-Holm and Matamoros’s multiple nocturnal excursions through the Florida Everglades National Park in search of amphibious collaborators.

As Lonberg-Holm bowed and plucked in conversation with the environment, he was joined by vocalizing frogs who seemed to “take him on as an exotic member of their own species.” The dominant audible presence was an invasive amphibian, the Cuban Tree Frog. Working like a “perverse herpetologist,” Matamoros, who is an experienced field recorder, impeccably captured these extraodinary interspecies improvisational duets, later to be featured on the CD Bow Hard at the Frog.

As pleasurable as listening to the CD is, a live performance has a far more moving impact as a shared experience in real time. Matamoros’s numerous recordings of the natural inhabitants, including mysterious water noises, the incessant mosquitoes, bats and various birds in addition to the vocalizing frogs, became the compositional foundation for a surround sound re-mix featuring the frogs and the cellist in a live improvised duet. Prior to the actual performance the space was filled with the sound of Matamoros’s 2013 recording Distant Bats. Indeed the air was full of them darting here and there, clearly heard but not seen just as it might be in their own habitat, and thus not being sure exactly what kind of creature was the source of the sound. For the performance Lonberg-Holm and his cello sat on a raised platform surrounded by a seated and sometimes standing audience, with Matamoros to one side at his laptop.

Once you closed your eyes you were immediately transported into the nighttime swampy depths teeming with life and it soon became difficult to discern where the cello and the frogs began and ended so exquisitely integrated was their musical conversation. At the same time each maintained their individual identities and voices as they responded to each other. Sometimes birds joined in as commentators. It was a joyous concert, exhilarating and wondrous in its evocation of the rich diversity of other species and our capacity to communicate with them when we listen carefully.

Bow Hard at the Frog also brings us in direct contact with what we have to lose. For those not aware, frogs have been one of the great mass extinctions in the wild in recent times – the first victims of the epidemic being the Panamanian golden frog and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed tree frog. The only survivors of the species are housed in the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC) in Panama thanks to its devoted director Edgardo Griffith who sees each frog as an individual.[1] The disappearance of frogs has since spread from the mountains of Central America, to the Sierras, from the highlands of South America to the eastern coast of Australia.

And so Matamoros’s and Lonberg-Holm’s work becomes more than simply music or art, but an act of preservation, an elegy for the future, and an awakening for all those ready and willing to listen. In the voices and songs of the frogs is a message. In saving them we will save ourselves.

[1] Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction. 2014

COVER PHOTO: REED HUTCHINSON / CAP UCLA

Sankai Juku. Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land
Music by Takashi Kako, Yas-Kaz, Yoichiro Yoskikawa
Royce Hall, Center for the Art of Performance/UCLA
Sunday, October 6, 2019

Fred Lonberg-Holm & Gustavo Matamoros, Bow Hard at the Frog
Deep Listening Festival. LAXART, Hollywood, CA
Sunday, October 13, 2019

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Jacki Apple is a Los Angeles-based visual, performance, and media artist, designer, writer, composer, curator and producer whose work has been presented internationally. Her critical writings have been featured in numerous publications including High Performance, The Drama Review, Art Journal, and Artweek since 1983. A contributing writer to Fabrik since 2011, she is Professor Emerita at Art Center College of Design.

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