This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
In the summer of 2020, Madeline Bez and Keaton Leier, who previously danced together in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Aspirant Program, went on a camping trip up the coast of Oregon into Washington with their friend Charlotte Nash. All three are professionally trained ballet dancers and have worked in various locations across Canada and the United States. Though the group had been hiking together before and knew they shared a love of nature, this weeklong excursion was the first time that the urgency of their dual interests in dance and climate activism began to present as something ripe for further exploration, Bez says. A few months later, Leier and Nash approached Bez with the idea of starting a collective involving both dance and the environment, and she quickly agreed.
Artists Climate Collective, as they named the group, has ties to Portland (where Nash works as a company dancer with the Oregon Ballet), New York, Atlanta and Toronto (where Bez and Leier have lived and worked) and Winnipeg (where Leier and Bez first met while training with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet). Since its inception, Artists Climate Collective has put out two film projects – both titled Art 2 Action, each comprising four unique dancefilms – released in 2021 and 2022. The films explore environmental issues through ballet, encouraging viewers to “feel ideas around climate change that can sometimes be difficult to scale in our minds,” as their website describes. The second Art 2 Action series was released this October and featured choreographies filmed in Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland and Winnipeg. Recognizing a Canadian, and specifically Manitoban, influence that runs through the collective, the founding members have ensured that while their project expands throughout the United States, they continue to recognize Canadian territories and artists in their work. The most recent series of Art 2 Action films included a piece called Čišet that was filmed on Treaty 1 (Winnipeg), choreographed and danced by Cameron Fraser-Monroe, member of Tla’amin First Nation, and accompanied by Emily Solstice Tait. It depicts the two dancers navigating the boundaries of a beach volleyball net, representing Indigenous disagreement over territory.
In this piece and others, the need for place-based engagement with social and environmental issues is clear. Haley Pauls, regional reporter for Manitoba, connected with Bez, who has recently relocated to Harbin, China, to dance with Harbin Ballet. Over an approximately 14-hour time difference, the two discussed the prospects of climate focused art as a mechanism for increasing public awareness and provoking change and how places and environments can generate emotions.
Haley Pauls: Can you tell me a bit about your educational background in dance?
Madeline Bez: When I was 11, I moved from Phoenix to train at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. I was in Grade 7, which is Level 2 of their professional program, and I was in the dorms there. And I was in their professional program until I graduated in Level 7, which is the end of high school. I did two years of post-secondary with their Aspirant Program, and then through that, I actually decided to stop dancing. I was in a place where I didn’t think that it was what I wanted to be doing anymore. So I took some time and I travelled, and that’s when I started rock climbing. And then after maybe eight months, I realized… maybe I miss dancing, so I went back up to Winnipeg and I joined the Aspirants for the second half of their year to get back into shape. I was in Winnipeg for quite a long time.
HP: A few of the films in Art 2 Action 2022 strike me as quite experimental. I was wondering what your experiences with the structures of traditional ballet have been like and what kind of boundaries you might be hoping to challenge or push through your work.
MB: I think we want to remain in the framework of dance, but we also want to push what that means to people. For example, Darian Kane’s Dear Roots: An Interview was her second piece with us. Because we had already worked with her, we were like, ‘Be creative; you have the power to do what you want. If you have an idea, run with it.’ So she created a very quirky piece about mushrooms and the mycelian network. I think some people found it weird that that was a ballet piece, but I think a lot of people really connected with it and saw something in it because it was very different, refreshing, lighthearted and whimsical. And you don’t always see that side in ballet.
So we just want to keep pushing forward. We don’t want it just to be sunshine and rainbows; we also want people to feel the negative impacts of climate change and push them to feel things around that. But we also don’t want it to be doom and gloom.
HP: I’m also curious about the international element of this project. Previously, you were in New York, Keaton is in Toronto, Charlotte is in Portland, so you’re working across this broad area in Canada and the U.S. Do you think being in different places and taking in the different things that are going on environmentally or socially there and then bringing them together is a strength of what you’re doing? Do you find that these different places impact how you’re thinking about climate change and the environment at any given time?
MB: I think so. I mean, even if you film a piece outside, at any of these different locations, it’s going to look very different. So each one has their own environmental issues, but also, they have their own environment as well. Being spread out has its challenges; it can be difficult to co-ordinate meeting across time zones. But also, it has a lot of strengths in that we have a really far reach of artists who are available to us and who we know in our networks. I think if we were all together in one location, it would have been much harder to find people across the entire continent to make these pieces. But because we’re all in these different locations, it’s like, ‘Well, I know one person here, I know one person here. Let’s try and reach out to them and make it as broad as possible.’
HP: So Cameron Fraser-Monroe’s piece, which was filmed in Winnipeg, was focused on the idea of Indigenous groups disagreeing on territory. It seems like part of what you’re doing with this film is acknowledging the fact that land right issues are environmental issues.
MB: Can I back up a tiny bit? In Winnipeg, in 2014 when I was in the Aspirant Program, there was a tour that came through that the Aspirants were part of called the Blue Dot Tour – it was part of David Suzuki’s nationwide tour that he was doing to advocate for access to clean air and water. A group of Aspirants performed a piece that was created for the tour called X Years. And we actually recreated X Years in our first Art 2 Action film – the choreographer’s name was Philippe Jacques. And so, in making our second film, we also wanted to have another element of Canada or Winnipeg in it. We were thinking about different Canadian choreographers we knew – Cameron is also someone from the alumni of RWB school that we knew in our network, so we reached out to him. And I think he was in New Brunswick at the time, but he came up with the idea for the piece, and we thought it would be an important addition to our film because, like you said, land rights are environmental rights, and human justice rights are environmental rights. And I think that’s so important to have included; having it from an Indigenous perspective is imperative. And the cellist who did the music for his piece – Cris Derksen – was actually in the performance that was in David Suzuki’s Blue Dot Tour that I originally performed in in 2014 when I did X Years, so that was kind of a full circle moment. That was kind of cool.
HP: On the [Artists Climate Collective] website, it explains that part of what you aim to do is create an emotional response from your viewers. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.
MB: When we’re commissioning these films, we’re not like, ‘OK, we want people to feel something.’ But if there’s heart and emotion that’s put into creating the pieces, people often will feel that come through. So that’s what we ask [of] our choreographers: give everything to your piece and the dancers. And everyone has so far.
HP: Out of curiosity, if you could imagine that you were seeing these films for the first time, out of context, what kind of feelings do you think might come up for you?
MB: I think especially when the pieces are filmed outside, like The Message, 2022, which was filmed on the beach, or Cameron’s, with the sand, even Darian’s Dear Roots, it really makes you think about the places that they are filmed, think about the care that those places get or deserve. I also think it would make you feel something about the relationship that the dancers or the people would have with this space they’re interacting with.
HP: The Message, 2022 really got me with that. There was something very animalistic about it, very raw. It kind of made me think: we want to protect this. You kind of forget sometimes, especially when you live in a cold city like Winnipeg and you’re trapped inside.
MB: Yeah, you don’t necessarily want to go outside all the time. It’s brutal. But sometimes you have to take a pause and remember that it may be brutal, but it’s fantastic and amazing and we have so many places that are valuable and worth protecting.
HP: When you imagine the work [the collective] is doing having a tangible impact on your audience, what does this look like?
MB: I think, in the most basic sense, we hope that people just have a lingering thought that makes them have a conversation with someone or look something up. Start with the simplest, most basic things, but maybe that leads to more. Maybe that leads to more conversations with people. Maybe that leads to them becoming more involved locally, whether it’s doing something simple or becoming more involved politically. I think each person’s reaction is going to be very different, but we just want them to leave with a sense of personal agency. It’s hard because individuals are maybe not the ones responsible for what’s going on in the planet (a lot of it is corporations), but individually we can make a difference and work together to hold corporations responsible. It does start with the individual, so if we can get people to just start talking to each other, start listening to each other, that’s a great place to start.
HP: Definitely. I think there’s definitely something to be said for the development of a collective consciousness that just cares about these things.
MB: Everything starts in your community, so if you can get people involved in your community, locally, that’s a wonderful place to start.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
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