GLACIER: A Climate Change Ballet Wows ‘Em in DC

Like dancers, glaciers flow sinuously, just on a timescale of decades rather than seconds. This motion is captured in choreographer Diana Movius’ “Glacier: A Climate Change Ballet,” a work for seven dancers just finishing a run at the Washington, DC Fringe Festival.

Although the music is modern, “Glacier” is structured and danced as a traditional ballet, with pirouettes and graceful moves, with a stirring female solo and a dramatic male one, as well as a stirring pas de deux. The work opens with the six female dancers taking the part of glaciers, gliding in unison across the floor while an ethereal female voice soars above and a vast photo of a glacier is projected behind.

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Diana Movius’ acclaimed GLACIER places a dynamic and melting polar environment on stage. Dancers ripple, crack and plunge, embodying the science behind icecap collapse. A custom video projection by documentarian Robin Bell surrounds the dancers, creating an immersive audience experience.

Dancer Anna Lipkin feels that the ballet form perfectly captures the sense of a glacier in the grip of climate change, that it transmits a “sense of regalness,” that she “starts the ballet feeling that I am a glacier.” The dancers actually appear onscreen, so that the live performers are advancing in unison, while a prerecorded version dances behind them, all against the whiteness of the glacier.

The action gets more frantic as the dancers “mimic the cracking and flowing,” says Movius. “All of the footage is real,” she exclaims, showing “what’s happening in polar regions.”

Like a glacier, a dancer is both a physical and an aesthetic object, although the dancer works consciously to transcend the realm of the physical. A glacier ebbs and flows over eons, but now they are melting, ebbing far more than flowing. Thus, the vast whiteness in “Glacier” is interrupted by a crack of blue, as ice gives way to water. Eventually, blueness swells and fills the screen. Then, a shape appears beneath the water, moving in sing song fashion.

The shape becomes a pair of massive paws, pulling back to reveal a frantically swimming polar bear. In front of this is the male solo, danced by Daniel Cooke, the bear his virtual partner, the music rhythmic and frantic, capturing the bear’s desperation.

The piece returns to icebergs, to glaciers calving and melting. Then, the music turns classical and spritely as a lively couple dances in the foreground, although it is, in a way, a lively dance of death as the glacier melts. Finally, the ensemble returns and the piece ends with a movement titled “Epilogue: 2050 AD,” the dancers outstretched in awe, a hymn to the power of nature, but simultaneously showcasing the unwitting power of humanity to change what nature hath wrought.

For Diana Movius, who conceived and choreographed “Glacier,” the work comes as a natural extension of her life passions. She has been dancing since she was five years old, and became fascinated with “climate change and deforestation starting at age ten.” “The only two things I could see myself doing were dancing and environmental issues,” she exclaims. “Now I can do both.”

Trained as a classical ballet dancer, Movius went on the circuit of auditions. Like so many young artists, “I tried and tried and tried,” she says, but it “didn’t really pan out.” So Movius moved on, earning a Master’s degree in environmental anthropology. She has since been a consultant on forestry and climate change for the World Bank, the United Nations, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development, endeavors which she continues.

Yet her artistic side called out, and in 2010 she founded the MOVEiUS Dance Company, which premiered with a steampunk ballet before moving into the environmental arena with a dance about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. At the back of her mind was the idea of a ballet dealing with the premier environmental challenge facing humanity, climate change. Finally, she made it happen and the dance premiered in March of 2015 at the Atlas Theater in Washington, DC.

“Glacier” can be enjoyed simply as an aesthetic experience, capturing the flow of music, photography, and the marvelously trained human body. Movius takes the astounding power of the nature documentaries that have smitten us all and adds multiple dimensions, a fusion of many arts.

Yet, Movius also hopes to move people on the issue of climate change, which she says is “notoriously difficult to communicate.” She explains that “the science doesn’t seem too immediate,” while on the other hand the subject’s doomsday nature “can make people feel overwhelmed.” She hopes the piece can make climate change feel immediate. Art can make such issues “personal in nonthreatening way,” she says.

Dancing in “Glacier” has certainly made climate change personal for Lipkin. Previously, “I cared about it peripherally,” she says. Becoming a glacier, so to speak, has succeeded in “capturing the scale and immediacy of the threat” while making it relevant.

Lipkin has recently been reading about glaciers, delving into the details. While glaciers are always melting and being created anew, climate change has altered the interplay, leading to faster melting. Dancing as a glacier while reading about them “gives you nuance, better perspective of the science,” she says. The rational meets the artistic, inspiring audiences not just to know about climate change but to feel it.