This spring a small-but-innovative dance company in Southern California called TRIP Dance Theatre premiered a production about what poet Gary Snyder calls "the war against nature." The dance was called "Poisoning the Well."
Using delicate, Asian-flavored music, played live, the dancers first appeared carrying water and gathering around a well. Slowly the audience could watch the grace and beauty of these dancers, four of them women, literally turned upside down by human desperation, greed, and the raw flow of our "effluent society," including elegantly simplified depictions of "red tides," the vast gyres of plastics in the oceans, and "drunken" trees.
The dance was both gorgeous and upsetting, but required very few words words. To better understand, and to introduce TRIP Dance Theatre to a wider audience, I asked company founder and choreographer Monica Favand Campagna to talk about her work:
KS: I love — or perhaps I should say, I admire — your central metaphor, the idea that we humans, in countless different ways, are poisoning the well of the earth that sustains us. How did that metaphor come to you, and how did you develop it as you worked on the piece with your company?
MFC: Thank you. I do have to give credit where credit is due on this one. I was having a meeting with my good friend and our video artist, Carol Gehring, about the show. She brought up the image of the well and what it represented in the I Ching, and she shared with me a vision of a community surrounding a well in hopes that I would use that idea for my opening scene. I was completely inspired by that image. I had been searching for a title that would reflect this idea that we are poisoning our environment, and when we started talking about the well, and all that it represents, a huge bell went off. It was the perfect image.
I started thinking, OK, what is it you are essentially trying to say — and it was: I am sorry earth, I love you. As I scar you, I scar myself. At one point, I thought of "setting your own house on fire" as an image — but the well was much deeper, pardon the pun. It encompasses so many ideas. A gathering place of community, the idea of the well as one’s soul, a place people come to for answers and wishes, a place that is essential to life. And things kept clicking — I found a poem by a Javanese poet Nenden Lilis Aisyah called "Sumur" ("The Well") — about a kind of drought of the soul. I didn’t end up using the poem, because I would have wanted to get her permission first, but the flood of well imagery, such as this, kept coming my way — and kept my mind racing. When I make a new piece, I usually start a new "book" of ideas, images, words … this book was getting very full.
KS: You mentioned that you have been inspired by nature. This show, "Poisoning the Well," looks directly at our species’ exploitative and unhappy relationship with the natural world. Is this piece more pointed than your work in the past?
MFC: I’ve felt since my late twenties (I am 36 now) that our society is in deep trouble in terms of our unraveling connection with bodies, our communities, the earth, and our primal instincts. I always feel like shouting to wake people up from this comatose state that most of us struggle with these days — it’s probably best I do that with my work where it can be constructive!
KS: Can you talk a little about this "comatose state"?
MFC: To me, it’s about questioning what is "normal" — and saying, no, this is normal. It is normal to want to move my body around. It’s normal to want to sleep now and then. It’s normal not to have a big car or it’s normal not to have 12 places to check voicemail. I have found that people sometimes just need permission to follow their natural impulses. We have so many things around us — mass media — that promote all the wrong messages about what happiness is. When I finally do hear a wise voice, a young child, an old soul, the Dali Lama, I will often just break down and cry and think, my God, why can’t people like this be our presidents and leaders. Where are all of the elders, the wise people, the spiritual healers? Why don’t we exalt these people instead of pop icons and people that make a lot of money. It upsets me so much.
KS: Have you always felt a little alienated from our culture?
MFC: From some aspects of it, yes. But I also think you make your life of who you choose to have around you, your community. My community is filled with artists, creative people, healers, and people who value the things I value — these people are part of our culture too. I was raised by creative people, went to school for a long time with creative people, worked with creative people — so to me that was normal. To be connected with your spirit and creativity was a measure of accomplishment. I never let other people’s yard sticks of success tell me otherwise.
I perhaps feel alienated from certain aspects of our mainstream culture. But I definitely have a part in it too. I think I have always been trying to figure it out — to understand how we got here. Everything is changing so fast, and I think that many people are feeling rather lost. It gives me a sense of purpose to reflect, to try to understand and talk about it, and to perhaps make some sense and positive changes for myself and others along the way. I have always loved anthropology, learning about other cultures, about our shared human history, about the lifestyles of our ancestors and of those people who are still truly connected to their environment. I grew up half in the city and half in the country and I absolutely loved playing in the forest. I am addicted to Jean Auel’s books (Clan of the Cave Bear, etc.). Part of me wants to see if I could survive in pre-historic days. So, seeing our modern day lifestyles becoming faster and faster paced, so disconnected from nature and the cycles of the earth and seeing how people are losing connection with their own bodies — I have made many pieces over the past 10 years about those issues.
KS: How did you begin to dramatize these issues?
MFC: In 1998, TRIP Dance Theatre’s first full length concert was a collection of pieces that directly confronted our spiral downward into the trappings of modern life — consumerism, multi-tasking, fast-food, desks, computers and isolation. It had some very dark pieces, like a trio about our obsession with making money based on Blake’s "The Wasteland" and others that were comic such as "Big Cheese" in which the dancer’s velcro costume began attracting more and more options of convenience — ’til she was immobile, dialing a phone for PinkDot delivery. The second half was meant to be a "hand out" of this situation — a call for community, for people to remember their childhood dreams, for a slowing down.
KS: It does sound dark. How do you keep people with you as you explore these unhappy places?
MFC: Perhaps because I really wanted to create positive experiences for the audiences rather than focusing only on what was wrong with the world. I began a suite of pieces from 1999-2001 called the "Sacred Spaces Series." I had already been running our Sacred Spaces Dance Workshops — improvisational dance workshops with live music for people of all ages and backgrounds who want to dance — and really saw what it meant to create community around meaningful ritual and around music, dance, and creativity. We did works which took place in site-specific locations around the city (including Topanga State Beach) — four evenings of work which were based on our connection with the seasons.
The work was ritualistic in a sense — we included many ancient themes that have run through human history based on what the seasons symbolize, what parallels are running in nature and our human lives — such as winter being a time of reflection, a time when many things are happening internally that aren’t apparent on the surface.
In 1999 I created a work called "Skin Would Shed" about that — a transformation that happened beneath plaster body molds, that hung like cocoons — the dancers diving inward to replace an old, perhaps negative "mantra" with one that would better serve where they wanted to take their lives.
KS: As you became more interested in these issues, it sounds as if your work has become more intense and demanding as well.
MFC: Perhaps my sense of urgency has increased. I don’t think there is time to hold anything back anymore if our species wants to find a way to survive. Maybe as I get older, I get a little bit bolder too. In "Poisoning the Well", honestly — I am not sure if we will be able to get out of the mess that we are in. I used to be a lot more optimistic than I am now. I hate to say this, and it doesn’t stop me from trying to change my own way of doing things and from trying to educate other people through my art — but I am not so sure the entire world will be able to come together in a shared purpose and actually change things. I feel like there is a shift in consciousness happening now for many people — especially since we are seeing these issues in the media so consistently day after day … but the problems seem so numerous and so large … and we are still populating the earth, which is essentially what is stressing out the planet the most. I don’t see that changing unfortunately.
KS: If so, is this the way your work developed, or do you feel that we are in an environmental crisis?
MFC: Both — and probably the crisis we are in influenced my mind-set as the work was developing, just because it is all around me all the time. I think they are completely linked.
KS: You’ve spent some time in Asia lately, which shows up in your work. Was this a conscious plan, or did it just happen?
MFC: I loved the idea of starting "Poisoning the Well" with a village community, centered on a well which was well kept, and respected — where people pay homage to the earth and where things move at a slower pace. Through the night — we see this essentially fall apart. In fact, I saw this happening first hand. I went to Cambodia soon after reading the LA Times series Altered Oceans and — just as I had seen in Bali and Tahiti in years past — one could see first hand how plastics were affecting the environment. People were importing all of these plastic wrappers, plastic bottles, plastic everything instead of the traditional banana leaf wrappers for example. The smell in the air in Bali and Cambodia is toxic from burning trash. The litter is unbelievable. Imagine swimming in "paradise" in the middle of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Moorea near Tahiti — and being completely surrounded by plastic bottles or watching impoverished, half-naked children wading through piles of plastic trash on the shores of the Mekong river in Cambodia. Imagine lush valleys in Bali filling daily with the trash that no one knows what to do with. Heck, I can look along the stretch of freeway right near my home and see a mile of plastic bags clinging to the shrubs. It makes me crazy to see. These are potent examples of what it means to "Poisoning the Well" if I’ve ever seen them.
KS: You work with a small group of dancers, all but one of whom are women. Your costumes are gorgeous, and the music extraordinarily evocative. Yet many of the dances were about ugliness that we are inflicting on the planet. A dance with plastic, contrasting lovely and difficult movements, and awkward plastic garments and piles of battered refuse, for example. Would it be fair to say that this is at the core of this work, the tension that you develop between the elegance of dance, and the ugliness of environmental degradation?
MFC: Sometimes that is very true — especially in the "Albatross" section — where the bird is consuming red, orange and pink bottle caps thinking they are salmon egg covered food and we three dancers (myself, Taryn Wayne and Andriana Mitchell) are creating very fluid movement around her,representing the infinitely turning plastics of this ocean gyre. I asked Charlie Campagna, TRIP’s music director (and my husband) and our musicians for this performance, Hector Torres and Andy Tabb, to create something that was very sweet and soaring in quality.
This innocent bird is feeling so happy, eating her midday meal in a trash covered plastic gyre in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She has no idea that soon these meals will kill her, and probably her chick too as she regurgitates this plastic stew to her offspring. I wanted to create a sense of innocence — that something horrible is happening, yet the bird doesn’t know it. And neither do most people. Yes, I think a particularly sad feeling and tension is created thanks to this juxtaposition.
KS: You know the world of dance far better than most of us, I’m sure. From what I have seen, most dance is about developing and extending the language of the form, as is the case in most arts. But are there dances you have seen that do take on environmental questions, either implicitly or directly? If so, did other dances or approaches influence you?
MFC: There are many choreographers who do very message based, political work. There are grand storytellers, such as Joe Goode from San Francisco. There are people who create based on images. There are also, yes, choreographers whose work exalts in the sheer physicality of dance. There are people who do all of these things at the same time. One company I saw about a year ago, ODC (Oberlin Dance Company of San Francisco) created a work about global warming, and the melting of the polar ice caps and I have noticed a few upcoming concerts by LA based choreographers around those issues. Actually, lately I have noticed a swing to more issue based work popping up around here.
Anyway, back to ODC, I was interested in seeing ODC’s approach, because I was already percolating ideas for this show at that time. One image stuck with me profoundly — that of a woman hanging onto a man for dear life as she slowly slid down, face down to the floor. They did this in a very beautiful, slow, physically demanding way. That moment captured alot for me — the melting of the glaciers, the polar bears trying to hold on, people trying to hold on. Just now I am realizing that I have a similar image in our piece, in the "Drunken Trees, Bark Beetles and Fear" section, as two trees, uprooted by melted permafrost and weakened by the chewing bark beetles, fall into each other and desperately attempt to stay standing before both come crashing to the ground. Now, that image came to me directly from a description of what "Drunken Trees" appear to do, but perhaps that ODC image influenced me as well.
KS: At the end of "Poisoning the Well," each of the five dancers stands and delivers a line about the natural world. This lines seemed to come very much from the heart. Did you ask the dancers to find something to say that meant something to them, personally? And if so, why did you choose that approach?
MFC: Yes I did. I chose this approach for a few reasons. The dancers were also my collaborators on this work — they created so much. They are my family. Their own movement and ideas are woven throughout. We all took this experience as a learning one — each researching various issues and teaching each other what we learned. This piece belongs to all of us — so I liked the idea of having all of their actual "voices" revealed at the end.
The work brings up a shared mess we have all created. It is a very scary time — and we all have our own fears, our own hopes and our own ways of finding peace in the world. I liked that we made ourselves vulnerable to you — the audience. We can dance all night, but to ask the dancers to speak is sometimes hard for them (not all, but a few in my group had to brave up for it.) By making it so personal, and perhaps by revealing our vulnerability, I hoped to create a sense that we aren’t alone in these thoughts. Perhaps there are many other people in the audience who can relate to what one person has said. I also personally was very curious to know what these people, my colleagues, would choose to say if they could only choose one sentence. They are really beautiful souls.
KS: I was very intrigued to read that you and your husband, a musician, were influenced by Balinese culture. In an interview you said you wanted to have children and a regular life, but also you felt it was important not to become a slave to your "career." I’m sure it’s extremely demanding to run a dance company. How do you manage to keep it going without overdoing it and exhausting yourself?
MFC: Oh Boy. This is a tough one. I guess the answer is — sometimes I don’t!
But what keeps me going are three big things. I love the people I work with and the whole process of creating things with them. I love making things and the feeling of absolute elation I get when I’m in the creative flow — it’s like sparks flying and your just trying to catch them before they disappear. And perhaps the biggest thing — whenever an audience member tells me, with tears in their eyes, how my work has affected them — that is truly fuel. That means the world to me.
But the truth is — I also sometimes need a rest and a little space from the pace of production. The thing is that I think it’s really important to find balance in your life — if you are always running a race, how can you really talk about not running a race in your work?
I have to practice what I preach. I really do like finding time to play in my garden, to sit in the woods, to spend time with my friends, to read. I think having time like that actually gives more inspiration. Giving the space for new ideas to come in is really important. I always try to grow, to bring new things into my work, to try new things- otherwise, where is the fun? In fact, at the moment, I have put the company on partial hiatus. It is so hard for me to do this — and I still haven’t packed the costumes away- but the fact is that I needed to take some time to clean my apartment, to do some camping, to think about starting a family — and perhaps start doing something about it — and to start working on that savings account. I found I haven’t been enjoying many of the business aspects of running the company these days as much as I used to — the fundraising, the grantwriting, the marketing; I am finding myself not going the extra mile with these things lately. After 10 years of running TRIP, I think I just need a little break. I feel great creatively and as a dancer — but to do this, you have to do it all. Now — should a wealthy investor or producer or manager come along and want to book us for performances, that is another story!
KS: What’s next?
MFC: I promised my husband Charlie that he would get a break too. He works so hard making such amazing music for us and working with our other fantastic musicians. Now it really is time for him to be able to work on projects of his own for a while. I love it when he goes into his music studio and doesn’t come out for a whole day or night — because it makes him so incredibly happy to go that deep and not worry about when he has to emerge. I can’t wait to see what he creates.
I love what I do, and feel so incredibly lucky to have art making and creativity at the center of my life. To be a dancer is probably in my DNA. But I never want to do this without really wanting to do it — it’s just too hard. I never want to make art with out inspiration.
Right at this very moment I am still dancing because I teach teenagers and I dance at our workshops every Thursday (That is my therapy too). And I will be leading a summer dance program at Oakwood School this summer – but the big company stuff is on pause right now. It’s all about archiving and making a nice DVD of the concert right now.
I love that my life these past few years has taken me on several unexpected journeys — a six week artist exchange workshop in Bali, a two week residency in Cambodia teaching arts administration skills to younger and elder dancers. I love the new adventures and finding them incredibly inspiring and rewarding. I have to say also that I felt such a strong urge to get involved in something towards helping our environment — that I considered the possibility of looking at a whole new career in that world. We’ll see. Right now — a dream of mine is starting to take root — that perhaps environmental groups will want to use my work in big fundraising events to support their causes. This would be so amazing. I feel a few seeds have been planted. Right now, I am just giving some space to see what might grow — and to jump off the hamster wheel, breathe a bit, do some re-grouping.
No one believes me though, I might add. They say I have said this before! I do notice that I am still saving those plastic wrappers …