The broad lawn at the Deering Estate at Cutler runs gently downhill to meet Biscayne Bay, washing up between two massive, palm lined jetties to be greeted, on this bright afternoon, by a mass of young people. They flood across the grass, arms and bodies rippling as they surge into lines and circles and lifts in a dance that looks like both prayer and invocation.
“Keep it alive!” exhorts their director, the Miami choreographer Dale Andree, striding the grass in baseball cap and jeans. “You care about it! This is important!”
For Andree the significance of this rehearsal goes far beyond staging a good show. At 4 p.m. Saturday, these young Miami artists will join hundreds of their peers around the country, from Alaska to Maine, California to Mississippi, Massachusetts to Nebraska, in the National Water Dance Project, a simultaneous performance that is both tribute and call to action for a crucial and increasingly beleaguered resource.
Created and organized by Andree, the project is intended to draw attention to pressing issues — from drought in the western United States to sea level rise in Florida — that increasingly concern an essential substance most people take for granted.
The project’s many sites, spread across 28 states, will be linked metaphorically (each performance will take place by an ocean, river, lake or other body of water) and technologically (all the shows will be live streamed online, reaching what organizers hope will be thousands of people).
“Art speaks very loudly,” Andree says. “We’re privy to so much information about serious and even disastrous concerns, to the point that people feel like there’s nothing they can do. We can make a change. But people have to have an entrance into the concerns before they can become more deeply committed. . . . When you have an event like this that embraces so many people and areas, hopefully that makes something you can build on.”
The Miami performance is part of the Deering Festival of the Arts, which for the first time in its six-year history will focus on environmental and ecological issues. The 444-acre park, next to Biscayne Bay in South Miami-Dade, hosts environmental education and research programs — one of which, Miami Dade College’s Earth Ethics Institute, is supplying outreach and volunteers for Water Dance.
Jennifer Tisthammer, Deering’s assistant director, says water issues are particularly pressing for South Florida, given the longtime tensions over the threats of pollution and reduced water flow to the Everglades, and the more recent threat of rising seas flooding the coast and seeping into the Florida aquifer to contaminate drinking water.
“This is a very important and contemporary issue,” Tisthammer says. “When we’re talking about water for a thriving, growing population, those things are going to hit us before they hit anybody else in the nation.”
“What you’re also seeing is that the public is more aware, and environmental organizations are really coalescing around this topic. Because water issues do seem to be a pressing, critical, life-sustaining force that everybody can get around.”
In addition to Water Dance, festival participants include the Miami High Waterline Project, which in November drew chalk lines in Miami Beach and Miami to show how sea level rise could inundate Miami-Dade; the Aire Residency, which brings artists for residencies in the Everglades; and Coral Morphologic, a Miami-based science/art duo whose films and multimedia projects focus on coral reefs.
Kim Yantis, Deering’s cultural arts coordinator, says she hopes the festival will be a more inviting way to get people to deal with what can seem like overwhelming problems.
“Art is less frightening than that doom and gloom approach to environmental understanding,” Yantis says. “Each art work encompasses a different aspect of water ecology and man’s interaction with the environment. Everyone has a different angle on how to address these issues.”
Technology has also been crucial to Water Dance. Participants have worked together via a website, NationalWaterDance.org, not only to organize and publicize the event but to create it. Contributors have posted short segments of choreography on the website for a crowdsourced dance sequence, which each group will perform at their show’s opening.
All the performances will stream live on the Internet, simultaneously filmed and recorded using a free cellphone app called Google Stream, and subsequently kept available online.
Danny Lewis, the retired founding dean of the New World School of the Arts dance department, is producing Water Dance through his nonprofit organization, Miami Dance Futures, and coordinating the Web effort.
“People in 30 states are simultaneously speaking to each other on the Internet, exchanging movement and taking dance to another level,” says Lewis. “It will be so exciting to see dancers from across the nation talking about our environment and turning those ideas into a symphony of movement across the country.”
Andree, a dance artist and educator in Miami for 30 years, believes strongly in the power of dance to bring people together and move them to action. Her initial inspirations for Water Dance were Rudolf Laban, a pioneering early 20th century German dance artist and theorist who invented what he called “movement choirs”; and the film One River Mississippi, which documented a 2006 event in which 10,000 people in seven cities along the Mississippi joined in a dance tribute to the river.
She did a similar Florida-only project in 2011, and has worked for two years without pay on this national effort. A longtime adjunct dance professor at New World, Andree has made Water Dance an educational, as well as an environmental and artistic, project — most of the participants are from dance programs and schools.
Andree says she hopes the students will not only become more aware of environmental issues, but of the ability they and their art form have to instigate change. “We’re all looking for a way to make a difference, to take dance and say we can do something about this,” she says.
The 80 Miami dancers come from New World, Miami Dade College’s Kendall Campus, South Miami Middle Community School, the Arthur and Polly Mays Conservatory of the Arts and R.R. Moton Elementary School, with a 50-member chorus from New World’s music department (together with Miami musicians Vicki Richards and Jeff Deen).
Arts for Learning, a nonprofit group that does arts classes in public schools, is staging separate performances with 600 elementary school students around Miami-Dade.
“What we’re doing here is bringing the community together from all ages and all aspects of South Florida and talking about an issue that we are all dealing with that most people don’t recognize,” says New World dance student De’Andre Holton, 20. “We’re so enthralled with the media and social things . . . that we don’t really realize what’s going on in our own backyard. And that’s what this project is really shedding light on the most.”
Andrea Llamas, an eighth-grader at South Miami Middle who is dancing Saturday, says she wasn’t aware of the threat of rising oceans before this.
“I was really scared,” says Andrea, 13. “If the sea levels were to rise we would be under water.” She says she is happy to participate in something that might help. “Just the fact that people are getting together to bring people’s attention to it will cause people to be more aware. I’m just really proud to be a part of it.”