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On Thin Ice: Jody Sperling Choreographs Work in Hopes to Draw Attention to Climate Change

Jody Sperling's video "Ice Floe" (edited by Ben Harden and Amanda Kowalski) received second place from Human Impact Institute's Creative Climate Awards. Photo by Pierre Coupel.

In 2014, Jody Sperling became the first choreographer to conduct research on a U.S. Coast Guard science expedition to the Arctic Ocean. She's now making a 30-minute work that she hopes will call attention to the impact of climate change.

In the award-winning video “Ice Floe," we first see Jody Sperling from a distance. Shot from overhead, she looks like a moth spinning on a vast and barren winter landscape in her oversized silk cape, with nothing but pristine snow and sky in sight for miles. But of course it isn't land at all. It's ice.

When the camera zooms in closer, the winged creature becomes a woman in a white unitard and lace-up Timberlands, wearing nothing on her head but a thick layer of hair gel and a white headband to protect her ears. You can hear the sound of the wind whipping the silk as she twirls. There's little to suggest that it's only 12 degrees, but one can imagine.

On May 13, 2014, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a polar icebreaker, departed from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, for a 43-day research mission into the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean—an area where ice is disappearing at an alarming rate. Onboard was a team of 53 scientists tasked with conducting studies of water flow, marine biology and ice formation. Also onboard was a small group of nonscience professionals invited as part of an outreach effort: a writer, a videographer, a visual artist, a photographer, a teacher—and choreographer Jody Sperling.

During the expedition, Sperling would conduct her own research—collecting samples, as she puts it—for a dance piece she is making about the Arctic. And she would dance on the vanishing sea ice—a total of 12 times. “The ice is totally transient," she says. “It's not there now. The land I was on disappeared—and re-formed."

Rehearsal for Life Cycle of Ice: Krissy Tate, Chriselle Tidnick, Jody Sperling, Sarah Chien (hidden) and Jenny Campbell. Photo by Christopher Duggan.


An Idea Unfolds

Climate change is occurring faster in the Arctic than anywhere else. The ice is retreating, and as the ratio of ice to open water shifts, so does the balance of everything else. The impact is huge: Coastal communities become vulnerable to catastrophic weather events, fisheries are at risk (as are other animal populations) and sea levels rise all over the world. Research expeditions like that of the Healy measure the effects in search of ways to protect the future of the planet. Time is short and everyone onboard has a compelling purpose.

If you're wondering how a choreographer fits into this picture, you're not alone. Inviting a dancer aboard was a stretch, even for a visionary like Robert Pickart, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Outreach is part of many cruises he leads, because he's committed to spreading awareness of climate science to the general public.

Sperling traded her standard-issue Coast Guard Mustang suit for a unitard to dance on thin ice. Photo by Pierre Coupel.

“You should have seen the captain's face when I said, 'You know we're tossing around the idea of having a dancer come on,'" says Pickart. “We're going out on a Coast Guard vessel, a bunch of military folks onboard; we're doing hard-core science out on the ice, and here we're thinking of having a dancer come out? This type of thing has never been done before."

But of course they hadn't met the likes of Jody Sperling before. She thinks deeply about science, both in the movement dynamics of her work and as a human being who is passionate about the environment. That's led to a friendship with Larry Pratt, a senior scientist at WHOI. Pratt, who studies dance recreationally, had written to Sperling about her 2011 work Turbulence for her company, Time Lapse Dance, after a photo in The New York Times caught his eye. In the piece, the dancers spin their arms in white silk capes while standing in a diagonal line, evoking the image of wind turbines. Pratt has since used a video of that work for a class in fluid dynamics he teaches at MIT. When Sperling told him she was interested in climate change and wanted to make a piece about the Arctic, he set up a meeting with his WHOI colleague, Pickart. He had no idea Pickart would actually invite her on a research cruise.

“It was like a gust of wind blew me up against the wall," says Sperling about Pickart's invitation. She was both excited and agitated by the idea. The trip would take her away from home for seven weeks—it would be very difficult to leave her 2 1/2-year-old with her husband alone for that long. “I said no," she says. But for the rest of the meeting, she was only half-listening. Within a week she had worked out a way to make it happen.

Costume design by Mary Jo Mecca; hand-painted by Gina Nagy Burns. Photo by Pierre Coupel.


She began to prepare by dancing outdoors in 25-degree weather in Manhattan—with deep snow and a stiff wind at Riverside Park. “It was really miserable," she says.

It was also difficult to control the fabric of her costume—or apparatus, as she sometimes calls it—the billowing white silk cape that she manipulates with sticks.

“When I'm onstage, I get to create the entire effect. But if I'm dealing with any wind—I mean a tiny little breeze or a gust—all of a sudden I'm completely subject to the force. If I don't want the apparatus to be wrapped around my head, I have to follow it. Which means I'm incapable of executing pre-existing choreography."

Ship Life

Sperling immediately made herself at home onboard the Healy. She gave two dance workshops that were enthusiastically received and volunteered on the bridge for regular Ice Watch Survey duty. That activity was particularly fruitful for her in conceptualizing her dance piece. “I started to think about how ice forms," she says. “What's its annual adventure? The idea of melt can be very poignant if you think of it as being the last melt. But it's also a natural part of the process."

In the helicopter hangar that she used as a dance studio, she was able to work every day. “As a choreographer in the middle years and as a mom—it's a daily struggle to continue to be the dancer that you want to be. What was really wonderful was that I was able to go to my limits. I realize that I'm pretty foundationally robust. I haven't peaked yet."

Time Lapse Dance member Jenny Campbell in rehearsal. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

On the Ice

Whether scientist or dancer, leaving the ship to go out on the ice is at the discretion of the Coast Guard crew. First, an advance team tests surface thickness and stability and scouts for polar bear activity. Science team deployment begins slowly, with one or two people. Sperling had to be patient. Finally, when the Healy dropped anchor for its third ice station, she got the green light. It was 12 to 14 degrees that day.

“It takes your breath away. It's that cold," she says. By the time she got her video camera set up, she'd already lost warmth. She had imagined the surface would be slick, like an ice-skating rink, but this ice was snow-covered, and underneath, the surface was uneven. “It was challenging," she says. “I went into snow up to mid-calf, right over my boots. I was sort of dancing around—I would take a step and then all of a sudden plunge deeper in the snow. And it was windy. The costume kept blowing over my head."

She had quite an audience. “We knew it was going to happen—this gawk factor," says Pickart. “There were about 90 people on the ship, and you can just imagine how many were standing at the rail looking down at this woman doing this intriguing dance on the Arctic hard pack. And being filmed. At the beginning it was just like, whoa. And then it became a little more routine, like the science work. It became part of our process."

The crew was eager to make it work. After that first outing, a crew member suggested using a shovel to clear a working space and setting the tripod on a piece of plywood so it wouldn't sink in the snow. “This is a ship with a lot of resources, filled with engineers," he told her. “Anything you need, we'll help you."

“After that, every time before we'd go out, the shovel and plywood would be waiting," says Sperling.

The Takeaway

Back in New York, Sperling must translate her body of research onto the bodies of her dancers. Among other elements, the show will include projections of the haunting images of ice she photographed while on the cruise.

“It's a challenge because I'm going in with so much data. At a certain point I'll have to throw out all that I'm carrying around and just make the dance," she says. “The music is very conceptually solid, so that will help us."

New duet: Sperling demonstrates the underlying movement two dancers use to create this shape. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Composer Matthew Burtner, who grew up in a small town in northern Alaska, is collaborating with Sperling. His music is called ecoacoustics. He does field recordings and filters them through different harmonic systems. “He's obsessed with the Arctic and ice," she says.

Life Cycle of Ice will premiere at the JCC Manhattan June 20–21. Plans are in the works to tour the show outside New York City.

Sperling didn't anticipate how much the Healy experience would ignite her passion for activism. “The mission of Time Lapse Dance is shifting to basically integrate dance and climate science," she says. A talkback session with a climate scientist and educator will take place around the show, and Sperling has written a proposal to create education programs for youth. “It's a great feeling when you hit on what you really are meant to be doing in this world. I feel this sense of purpose right now that's very guiding," she says.

As vital as the education element is, Pickart thinks the dance work itself has potential for real impact. “She can portray how exotic it is up there: the beauty of the landscape—this part of the world that no one really tends to think about so much. And then to start to realize it's all in jeopardy."

“If we can get people thinking about how fragile the Arctic Ocean is, that's huge," he says. “So that when someone talks about drilling or getting into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and possibly endangering that because of resource development, that's the kind of thing that can have impact. There's a real chance of permanent changes up there that's going to take away this amazing magical beauty."

Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Dancing With Fabric

Time Lapse Dance Company performs in the style of modern dance pioneer Loie Fuller, who had an interest in science and used fabric and light to create special effects. Over the years Jody Sperling has developed her own more contemporary approach.

The technique requires upper-body strength and extreme spatial awareness. Company dancers not only have ballet training, many of them are trained in aerial work. “It's not just about waving your arms around," Sperling says. “All of the movement has to come from your spine. And you really have to think outside yourself. Your end doesn't stop at your fingertips. Your end stops at the end of your costume. You really have to see in your mind's eye the trace form that you're creating."

For example, she says, “You can never wind back on yourself. It's like a highway. If you want to loop around, you have to have an off ramp. There's a circle and then it comes back around and [the fabric] can go in the other direction. It's very fluid."

From top: photo by Pierre Coupel; photo by Christopher Duggan at New 42nd Street Studios; photos (4) by Pierre Coupel, courtesy of Time Lapse Dance; photos (3) by Christopher Duggan at New 42nd Street Studios

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