Dr. Sylvia Earle, famed oceanographer and TED Prize winner, is known for her ocean advocacy work. Advocacy takes many forms, but even Earle probably never predicted that her explanations of the intricacies of ocean life would be used as part of a multimedia dance performance, complete with acrobats, giant video screens, and on-stage interpretations of overfishing.
It’s all part of Okeanos, the latest project from Capacitor, a San Francisco-based dance company that exposes the audience to scientific concepts through movement. Past shows have focused on the creation of the universe, the forest ecosystem, and flower reproduction.
Okeanos, set to debut in April, is described on the Capacitor website as “a dance-circus sensory experience devoted to improving human-ocean relations.” Voiceovers from Earle–interspersed throughout the 60-minute performance–give the context for the show, which covers issues like overfishing and coral extinction.
It’s safe to say that Capacitor is unique in the dance world. Founded in 1997 by choreographer Jodi Lomask, the dance company does its best to interpret scientific phenomena without sacrificing artistic integrity. Every show explores a different aspect of the natural world. “The truth is, I begin with a vague feeling of where I want to go. This isn’t a physical destination, but a metaphysical one. In the past I have wanted to go into outer space or the deep Earth, to the top of the trees and, in this case, the bottom of the ocean,” says Lomask, who doesn’t have a formal science background but grew up around scientists (her father was a physicist).
Each dance performance is workshopped beforehand in Capacitor Labs–a think tank-style collaboration that brings together scientists, engineers, and dancers. The Capacitor Lab for Okeanos was held over a six month period at the California Academy of Sciences (CAS).
“In these monthly meetings, the creative team would be given a 20 minute lecture by one or two marine biologists or oceanographers and then present for 20 minutes on their craft and how he or she was approaching this particular project. We also show the dance as we develop it there, receiving feedback from the rest of the creative team and the scientists,” explains Lomask.
Lomask stresses that Capacitor would never prioritize perfect science over a captivating performance–but the dance company has incorporated plenty of feedback from scientists into the dances. Capacitor Lab serves another purpose as well: educating the dancers. In Okeanos, performers portray characters including nudibranches, octopi, clams, seahorses, and waves.
I recently spent an afternoon watching Capacitor rehearse for Okeanos. Afterwards, I spoke with dancer Nancy Kace Siefler, who told me that she has done lots of research for the show–everything from reading about seahorses to spending time in the CAS aquarium. “Jodi takes it to the next level,” she says. “We’re not supposed to represent the characters, we’re supposed to be the characters.”
The rehearsal was fairly bare-bones, lacking the massive video screens showing underwater scenes, the costumes, booming sound system, and special effects that will be seen in the show. But you get the general idea.
The final output from Capacitor Lab is always impressive, as evidenced by the video of Biome–a performance focused on the forest ecosystem:
When Okeanos has its run of shows in April (the 12th to the 15th), it won’t just feature the Capacitor performance. There will be over an hour of talks beforehand, featuring Chris Welsh of the Virgin Oceanic project, Dr. Sylvia Earle, David de Rothschild of the Plastiki, scientist Wallace J. Nichols, and more. A number of nonprofits–including The Environmental Defense Fund, Project Kaisei, BLUEMiND, and the National Geographic Ocean Initiatives–will have tables.
Lomask’s Okeanos project isn’t just a dance performance; it’s a way to inspire people to care about the ocean. “I hope audiences come away feeling more connected to the ocean and more sensitive to ocean health,” she says. I hope connections are made between folks in the ocean conservation movement as well, helping propel progress toward solutions.”