the star ledger

Northern Exposure, Global Warming in Alaska Inspires Choreographer
by Robert Johnson

New York - As a child growing up in Alaska, choreographer Emily Johnson lived close to nature. She was surrounded by spruce trees and streams, and she became acquainted with Alaska's massive Ice Age glaciers. That experience informs "Heat and Life," a dance about the threat of global warming that Johnson's Catalyst Dance company brings to Dance Theater Workshop next week.

"In elementary school we would go on field trips, every year, to Exit Glacier," says Johnson, who is 30 and lives in Minneapolis. "Now they have ropes at the edge, but back then, in the '80's we could crawl on it, peering down into the crevices and walking on the ice."

That was an innocent time. Awareness of global warming and the thought that Earth's rising temperature could destroy age-old, natural beauty and endanger human life had not crept into the public consciousness.

Yet the spruce bark beetle already had begun migrating northward. Advancing as the cold barrier retreats, these insects are swarming into Alaska and killing the trees. One day, Johnson heard the beetles had arrived in her family's backyard in Sterling.

"You can look out and see where there used to be a mountain of live trees; they're all gray and dead," she says. Tropical diseases are also moving north.

The ironically named Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park, where Johnson played as a child, has shrunk radically in just a few years, exposing a fresh moraine of broken rock. The choreographer, who conducts most of her rehearsals outdoors, took her company to the glacier to work on "Heat and Life" in 2004.

"I hadn't been back in maybe six years, and I couldn't believe how different it was," she says, "I was shocked."

"Heat and Life," which incorporates video footage of Exit Glacier, along with images of the smoking factories whose carbon emissions are partly to blame for global warming, received its premiere in Minneapolis in 2004. Johnson says she hopes to perform it all over the United States. Her experiences have been personal, but the effects of global warming will not remain confined to Alaska.

"It's an issue for everybody in the world," says Johnson, noting that global warming experts will be on hand to take questions from the audience after the show.

Bleak in tone, "Heat and Life" is set in a future world badly damaged by climate change. The piece is about adaptation. The dancers, communicating via walkie-talkies, "have to fight for their survival," Johnson says. Her choreographic process involved creating movement phrases, then challenging her dancers to perform them in an unstable environment where the space is shrinking. Parts of the dancer were created outdoors, working in strong wind or on a sloping riverbank.

The audience, too, may experience temperature contrasts during "Heat and Life."

Johnson's goal is to share her direct encounters with nature and her fears for the earth's safety. "We want to bring the outside in," she says.