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Filming Darian Kane's Dear Roots, An Interview for Arts2Action. Image courtesy of Artists Climate Collective

Art to Action

Dancing to raise awareness of the climate emergency

Dancers in mushroom hats frolicking in a forest; hands cupped around a sapling waiting for a lake’s lapping waters; a sandy pas de deux divided by a volleyball net; adolescent girls reaching earnestly toward the sky. These are some of the many impactful moments in Art 2 Action, Artists Climate Collective’s most recent film series aiming to bridge the gap between dance and climate change. The collection—featuring choreography by Cameron Fraser-Monroe, Yuri Zhukov (with direction by Emma Rubinowitz), Makino Hayashi, and Darian Kane—is available for viewing on Vimeo through November 7, with proceeds going to partner organizations GRID Alternatives, Sunrise Movement, and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (tickets are $25). “Art allows emotion to surface in unusual and spectacular ways and we hope to draw that out through this project,” reads the films’ credit page, which also shares with viewers that these pieces were created in four distant cities: Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, and Winnipeg. So how did nearly three dozen professional ballet dancers spanning the U.S. and Canada come together to address the relationship between dance and the environment?

Artists Climate Collective—like so many new activist groups—was born from the Covid-19 pandemic. “I have a big sense of passion and emotion towards our current climate crisis, and I’m always reflecting on what I can do personally to improve the world,” says co-founder Keaton Leier. “Mid-2020 it kind of dawned on me that I have these tools as an artist, and I could be using them in some way to address this problem.” Then a company member with Atlanta Ballet (he’s now with National Ballet of Canada), Leier reached out to two of his closest dance-world friends—Charlotte Nash, now a company artist with Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Madeline Bez, a freelance dancer in New York City—to start working through ideas. “We’ve all been avid environmentalists for a long time,” says Leier. “But it took slowing down during the pandemic to really solidify this image of how we can personally make an impact.”

The mission that the trio settled on is two-fold: Use the emotional impact of dance, and art in general, to raise awareness about the climate crisis, and raise money for carefully selected climate crisis organizations. A non-profit in its own right, Artists Climate Collective starts by raising funds from grants and individual donors in order to pay the artists they commission. “The projects can scale from working with an individual artist to create a painting or a digital work, or we have created larger scale film projects like Art 2 Action,” adds Leier (the “2” in the title indicates the series’ second year; 2021’s iteration was titled Art to Action). The organization’s visual arts projects have included selling handmade goods with an environmental bend. Most recently they’ve worked with Texas Ballet Theater’s Sophie Williams on rehearsal skirts made from recycled fabrics, Atlanta Ballet’s Fuki Takahashi on hand-embroidered tote bags, and Festival Ballet Providence’s Emily Lovedahl on a line of leotards made from scrap fabric. While Leier and his co-founders encourage artists to tie an environmental message into their works, it’s not a requirement. “It’s all about creating awareness, whether it’s specifically created to, say, save the ocean or not,” says Leier. “It doesn’t have to be that literal.”

Still from Emma Rubinowitz’s film With Time We Go for Arts2Action. Image courtesy of Artists Climate Collective

Emma Rubinowitz, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer and budding choreographer who’s created works for both years’ film series, took that sense of subtlety to heart this time around. Though in 2021 she choreographed a pas de deux featuring SFB’s Joseph Walsh and Esteban Hernandez about her disappointment with climate change apathy, this year she directed With Time We Go, originally choreographed by Yuri Zhukov. The ballet, set to the dramatic strains of Vladimir Martynov and Gidon Kremer, features teenage dancers from Rubinowitz’ alma mater, City Ballet of San Francisco. “It was choreographed on me and a group of dancers at my school when I was 15. It’s all about coming of age and the passing of time, and since then I’ve set it on several generations of students,” says Rubinowitz, who now works fulltime as a product designer while keeping one foot in dance. “It’s not directly related to climate change, but something I think about a lot is that we’re doing this not just for ourselves, but so that the generations that come after us can continue on.”

When asked what she sees as the relationship between art and climate change, Rubinowitz takes a moment to think. “When I was initially asked to this project, I kind of struggled with that concept. I had them very separate in my mind,” she says. “But I think what’s great about the collective is that often when people go into something like ballet, they leave the other parts of themselves, like being environmentally conscious, aside. And I think that in order to really make a change, people need to be thinking about how they can be environmentally conscious in everything they do.” One of Rubinowitz’s hopes for Artists Climate Collective’s work is that it will help audiences to realize that dancers are more than just figures onstage. “We have our own thoughts and values,” she says. “We’re whole people.”  

Still from Emma Rubinowitz’s film With Time We Go for Arts2Action. Image courtesy of Artists Climate Collective

As their second major digital project winds to a close, Leier, Nash, and Bez are hopeful about Artists Climate Collective’s future plans. The four individual films that make up Arts 2 Action will be removed from Vimeo on November 7 and submitted to various festivals, giving the organization a greater chance at visibility. “Some of the films last year received some pretty nice awards,” adds Leier excitedly. The trio is also eager to present work in person; though the focus on film work has proved successful, it was originally created solely out of pandemic restrictions.

“Charlotte has this lovely outdoor space outside of Seattle, and we always thought it would be a great place to put on a performance or do a festival,” says Leier. And then the group is looking towards visual arts events, scouting out galleries in both Toronto and Portland for an upcoming show with photographer Alana Campbell. But like the rhythm of the seasons Artists Climate Collective is working so hard to protect, the group’s intensity slows down in winter as the three founders focus on their ballet careers (and, of course, “Nutcracker” mania). “Coming of age in the dance world, the three of us grew to realize how real these problems were once we were living less sheltered lives,” says Leier. “There’s a lack of sustainable consciousness. Targeting that is our goal.”