Thursday, March 26, 2015

On the nature of climate change: Karole Armitage at AMNH

Two scenes from On the Nature of Things by Karole Armitage
(photos: Julieta Cervantes)

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in Field Notes From A Catastrophe, "It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.

Problems such as climate disruption, toxification of Earth, loss of biodiversity, loss of ecosystem services are solveable, but to do so human behavior must be basically altered.
In the twenty-first century we have created a civilization that is way out of step with the realities of our planet. 
--Paul Ehrlich, from text for On the Nature of Things

So our beloved American Museum of Natural History has funding from that climate change-denying Koch brother (click here). Well, last night's world premiere of On the Nature of Things, staged beneath the museum's iconic blue whale, felt like nothing short of an exorcism.

Choreographer Karole Armitage (Armitage Gone! Dance) filled Milstein Hall of Ocean Life with a multi-generational corps, including dancers from Manhattan Youth Ballet, as Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, performing live narration, laid down the science in layperson's terms. The message? Uncompromising: Climate is changing, we are responsible for it, and we are responsible for it.

And, no, I'm not merely repeating myself. We did it. Now we have to fix it.

Armitage and Ehrlich--a longtime friend of the choreographer's father, a biologist--fervently agree that the only way to engage most people with the complex science around climate and environment is through the heart, hence through the power of the arts. In that light, On the Nature of Things serves more as a supportive underscore, I think, than as educator or motivator--at least, up there on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The piece was made for the museum, but imagine the public service Armitage could do by touring it around the heartland and southlands before our next elections.

As a visual phenomenon, the work benefits, first, from its unique setting which places its uniformly-costumed dancers--a subliminal message in that coral color scheme?--in the midst of the museum's displays, encircled by onlookers there and on balconies. Armitage handles the hall's broad open floor with dramatic force, her deployment of dancers suggesting rising population, mounting tensions, collisions, competition for space and dominance. Her movement technique--a fusion of modern and ballet, meticulous, often showy--can hold the eye without necessarily spelling out matters spoken by Dr. Ehrlich. Unfortunately, the narration-dance overlay does not work. Luckily, I had the script and time to read it beforehand.

One wonders at the presence of a few dancers en pointe, especially when they use those pointe shoes for the clever but weirdly distracting trick of a quick slip across the floor. The dancers, though, are all in. They accomplish a handsome, coherent performance culminating in the choreographer's vision of serenity, hope and healing that we have yet to earn.

On the Nature of Things will continue with performances tonight and tomorrow at 7pm. For information and tickets, click here.

American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West and 79th Street, Manhattan
(Enter at 79th Street underneath staircase.)


Other American Museum of Natural History presentations of interest:

Our Earth’s Future: One-Day Course
Saturday, April 11, 9am–4pm
Free with application, available on

In a special one-day offering, Dr. Debra Tillinger will lead an in-depth exploration of the science of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and how changes in these two critical areas of Earth indicate and catalyze the impacts of climate change. Participants will hear from guest speakers on the geology, biology, and cultures of these beautiful and fragile parts of the world. They will also engage in discussions, take Museum hall tours, and enjoy a challenging game of geopolitics—SMARTIC, in which players must enact real-life solutions to the potential large-scale problems anticipated by the impact of climate change in the polar regions. Refreshments will be served.

Milstein Science Series: Sea Turtles
Sunday, May 3, 11am–4:30pm 
Free for Members or with Museum admission

Sea turtles are simply astounding! They lived alongside dinosaurs 150 million years ago, and still survive today. Playing a crucial role in our oceans’ ecosystems, this incredible animal group is now endangered due to climate change, poaching, habitat destruction, and accidental capture in fishing gear. Learn more about these resilient aquatic creatures and the conservation efforts in place to protect them with Eleanor Sterling, Chief Conservation Scientist, Center for Biodiversity & Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History; Wallace J. Nichols, scientist and New York Times-bestselling author of Blue Mind; and Michael Coyne, executive director of The event includes a live music performance by Bash the Trash, playing instruments made out of reused and repurposed materials.

For additional information, call 212-769-5100 or visit the Museum’s website at

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