Every electrifying minute of the Endicott Repertory Dance Ensemble production of Armations: Anthropocene, presented in late April at Tia’s Black Box Theater at the Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, was a sensory experience, professionally executed, and laden with layers of intellectual content.
The production explored the Anthropocene epoch, the geological period characterized by the dominant influence of human activity on climate and the planet’s ecosystems. With dance, visual art, lighting and sound, the production addressed the interrelationship of humanity, the role of technology in our lives, and the future of the natural world. A tall order, no doubt about it, but successfully realized because every element was carefully thought through, resulting in a unified performance that showcased an outstanding corps of young dancers, all students at Endicott College.
The co-creators of Armations: Anthropocene have been collaborators for the past 10 years and are members of the Endicott College faculty: Cynthia Roberts, professor of studio art and Nikki Sao Pedro-Welch, assistant professor in the dance program and head dance coordinator. Among other productions, their 10-year collaboration has produced two chapters in the Armations series. The first, Armations: Activating Adaptation, was presented at Endicott College four years ago.
They approached their latest project with these questions: “If in the Anthropocene era humans are ‘in charge,’ how should we move forward? How do we interact with each other, the planet and its biodiversity and resources?” With rich visual content and choreography, Armations: Anthropocene nudges the audience toward a higher awareness at this critical period of our existence.
Provocative and timely (as I wrote this article, a prominent headline in The New York Times read “Humans are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Rate”), the production explores a technically advanced world, parallel to ours, with glimpses toward our own inevitable future. “In this production, our interest in the Anthropocene epoch was born out of a growing awareness that we are in a moment in time on the planet when we have a set of challenges as humans, challenges like the intersection of human interaction with technology, the loss of biodiversity, and these massive questions that we’re interested in as artists,” Roberts explained. “We wanted to bring these concerns to the space of dance and visual imagery and sound as an immersive performance. We wanted to explore how to engage the audience and the dancers in the creative process and in these big questions, but in a way, that would be beautiful and engaging and appealing and challenging.”
Pedro-Welch, added, “Of course, in the performance, we presented an abstraction of these concepts where the audience could draw their own conclusions from what they were seeing. We created a sense of environment and experience to be immersed in through the different transitions of the piece. A phrase that we used throughout the semester, something that we all agreed upon that described how the dancers exist in this particular world, this environment, was the phrase ‘warriors of preserving the natural world.’ How can preserving the beauty of the natural world exist with the constant growth of technology? And how can they (the natural and technology worlds) exist together and how they can exist separately?’ That is really where the movement in the performance derived from in the process.
“It was very much a collaborative effort with the student performers on the choreography. They generated a lot of the materials based on discussions the ensemble had throughout the semester. Their physical and intellectual contribution clearly took this particular show to a level that even I did not expect. With their movements, they created authenticity in a fully committed response.”
The performance featured a floor to ceiling, continuously running video with scenes from the natural and technological worlds as the backdrop. Creative lighting, expertly handled, complemented the images and integrated the dancers with the projected video. The sound component further built the feeling of immersion.
The dancers, all young women, demonstrated strength and athleticism. They moved elegantly whether their movements were reflecting the hard-edged images of advanced technological inventions, or suggestive biomorphic forms and lush, tropical vegetation wafting in the wind. The 13 performers, ranging from freshmen to seniors, were Alexa Brown, Jenna Brown, Michaela Ellison, Meghan Fuge, Greer Hines, Mary Jablow, Christen Luddy, Holly MacCormick, Adina Marshall, Rylee Michaud, Elisa Palumbo, Emily Shaw and Karina Tomlinson.
Throughout the production, there were thought provoking details. Very few props were on stage, but interestingly, these were natural, organic elements that contrasted with the futurist feel of the scene. The angelic-like wings donned by a number of the dancers were made of twigs; the “master of ceremonies” communicated by listening and speaking into a conch shell.
The dancers wore identical white, sleeveless coveralls, worn like uniforms that erased any individual distinctions, except for one element — on the backs of each dancer’s uniform were words or phrases that provided additional messaging for the audience.
“Sometimes the phrases were meant to be taken very seriously, in other instances we did want to bring a little bit of humor in,” Roberts explained. As an example, she cited whole-brain emulation, the phrase that was on the uniform master-of-ceremonies. “That phrase refers to the uploading of our consciousness,” she continued. “In other words, can we do a digital upload of our entire brain, of all of our consciousness?”
Another one was event horizon, a technical term referring to the center of a black hole. plant blindness is the notion that, increasingly, new generations of humans are becoming blind to the species of plant life around them and their role in the ecosystem. Nature-deficit disorder — an actual condition, especially in children — refers to insufficient exposure to nature, light and fresh air. High-definition earth viewing — a way of looking at Earth from afar. These were seeds that Sao Pedro-Welch and Roberts wanted to plant in the minds of the audience and also of the dancers.
In the program literature, the co-creators stated, “We love exploring the intersection of the innate beautiful design of our planet and how humans interact with it. Enjoying it, overpowering it, harnessing it.”
As the audience, we benefited from their exploration.
(For more information on the Endicott College School of Visual and Performing Arts, visit endicott.edu/academics/schools/visual-performing-arts.)