Dance Therapy as Activism: One River Mississippi
by Karolyn Redoutey

(photos from One River Mississippi's slide show page)

Imagine 2,320 miles of river swelling from a stream to a wide delta.  Remember the names in Ojibwe or in English: Father of Waters. Big River. Great River. The Body of a Nation.  Begin at the headwaters in Itasca, Minnesota, the crown of the river with its marshes and streams, then head down the bend to Minneapolis, feel the energy winding through the Quad Cities in Iowa, onto St Louis and Memphis.  Keep the momentum on the way to New Orleans and Plaquemines Parrish.   Take these towns and cities, make them come to life on the same day, the same time.  Invite dancers. Welcome audiences. Form community.

On the evening of June 24th of this year these seven sites along the Mississippi joined together and truly became a united river.  Local choreographers used color, movement and rhythm to create community performances that reflected the beauty of the river, and drew attention to environmental issues.  The project, One RiverMississippi, was composed of “site-specific dances” which are inspired by unique characteristics of the terrain. Music was simulcast; a chorus of radios were stationed on walkways near each event.

At the beginning of One River Mississippi each site intoned a note on the musical scale, and the chords echoed down the river via local radio. Although the first chord was not responsive due to technical difficulties, the crowds were still enthusiastic.   During the first twenty minutes of the dance, performers danced to the choreography designed for their respective towns.  Next, brief 30- second music pieces native to the region were heard by all the towns via radio simulcast.  During the last section of the dance, all dancers moved to the same choreography and music composed by Lee Blaske. The end of the dance included the intonation of another chord, each city sending a sound down the length of the river. As a final movement, members of the audience were asked to face downriver and to extend their hands and arms in imitation of a wave and rolling motion of the river.

Local performers participated in the dance, but the audience was acknowledged and recognized and asked to participate with that final gesture. Members of the audience were easily able to view the scene from nearby locations. Stages included boats, bridges, water towers, buildings, wharves, shorelines, and streams.   At the source of a river, the rocks along a shore became a stage; toward the end of the river, in Plaquemines Parrish, an old house that supported river activity in the past, and the great shore itself, offered a platform for the event. 

Typically, such dances act as invitations. It is hoped citizens in attendance are awakened by the movement. A river horn from the bridge may sound as a call to action. Dancers then emerge one by one from smokestacks on the river banks, from buildings or from shorelines.  Women wearing capes flourish scarves the colors of a sunset.  Dancers in diving suits form eddies on a breakwater, perhaps, just as currents do, huddling into cocoons.  When the dancers emerge from these, they wave the sweeping movements of orange and yellow flags, the color of thesun and of life.  Often the performers mimic the movements of nature.  They follow a river’s movement and invite the audience who are assembled on bridges and walkways, to feel it.

Streamers may be suspended from the bridge and fastened to a breakwater. The Minneapolis “Women of the Water” in white silk dresses walked the bridge carrying blue vials of local water, and then danced on the lock and dam later in view of the falls. Like a midsummer night’s dream, the effect is breathtaking, but also there is a sadness about it. We long for a more graceful participation in nature, the dancers seem to suggest, as they raise their vials and pour the water into the river. The act seems a commemoration to whatever we have lost to industry. In many of the other sites, women offered dances wearing variations of white and other colors. The colors had significance to each site and represented healing. This website illustrates the graceful gestures offered by the dancers in each town.

In Minneapolis and Itasca, Native American dancers and drummers joined in the performances. At the beginning of the dance, a prayer was offered by a Native American elder in Minneapolis; at the end of the dance, a long tarp was rolled onto the span of the bridge in Minneapolis, and children and adults waved it up and down, as if they were holding a long narrow seamless net. In the background, the local radio station played the Blue Highway song. When you looked down the blue sheathing, it truly looked like a river running. You could imagine people in the Quad Cities, St Louis, and Memphis and Plaquemine Parish and New Orleans and feel their energy too, the sense that we are together in this; we are one river. Children ran. Adults looked each other in the eye and laughed. This is an example of how people are offered the opportunity to touch community.

Reaching out to people is the key to this work- getting people to be inspired, getting people to feel close to an issue, and working on an energetic level.  Energizing the whole person in body and mind and appealing to the senses is what is needed most today, when people and planet are in crisis, and the issues seem too overwhelming to address.     

In addition to the work of choreographers, dance/movement therapists were assigned to each site. They organized closing activities, such as the gesture that imitated the rolling river, and the unfurling of the blue sheathing of the Blue Highway. The intention was to encourage the audience to walk away with a sense of community.  The role of movement therapists is to use the imagination to heal alienation in the individual, through one-on-one intervention or through group dynamics.  Such professionals effect change in the psyche through movement of the body.  The philosophy is that in moving the body, we move the spirit, initiate change in ourselves, and also in community. This is a soul kindof activism, if you will, that expresses itself through color, rhythm and movement, through the physical world. It is perhaps what we need most now to heal our “disconnect” from the land, and from our mindless use of our resources.   If this country requires a call to action, to move out of its complacency, who better to lead us than inspired students of movement?

Productions such as these take hard work by staff. Choreographers, volunteers and organizers, and production managers work long hours for little or no pay. As dancers know, events require careful timing and endless rehearsals, and lots of concentrated effort.   The backgrounds of the personnel are varied.  Like many artists in our country, all have regular day jobs.  Some are involved in theater and other community projects or the public schools.  Some work with AIDS patients or in health organization to facilitate grief work.  One dancer in Louisiana acts as a consultant evaluating the effect of the therapeutic arts in rebuilding communities. Many dance therapists also work in private practice.

The creator of One River Mississippi is Marylee Hardenberg, Artistic Director, and Artist- in -Residence at the Center for Global Environmental Education at Hamline University, St Paul.  She says the driving force among all of those who work on this project is the web of community and mutual love and concern for the river.  It spills over onto the audience.  “I see performance as a pebble and the audience as the water. The quality of the dance will affect the audience and spread through it. When people feel connection, it can be so seamless that people may not even be aware of how the mechanism of the dance allows them to respond.”

Hardenbergh’s credentials are considerable. She has created dances in various locales, always with the intention to bring awareness to the site. In the late 90’s she traveled to Sarajevo and orchestrated dancers from the community who performed on broken slabs of concrete from war-town office buildings while the evening moon hung in the sky overhead.  She designed a dance for the commemoration of Mother’s Day on the grounds of the College of St. Catherine in St Paul, Minnesota, to bring mothers and daughters together in simple movements, to music. The dance brought attention to how the beauty of nature helps us to nurture and to heal relationships. That, she feels, is her life’s mission.  The One River Mississippi Project is a center piece. All her themes coalesce here into a call for action and responsiveness.

Why, you may ask, is a performance needed to spur activism along the Great River?  There is plenty to be alarmed about, if we consider the effects of human activity on the river, a prime problem in towns and cities. Waterfowl have decreased along the flyway during migration periods. Sediment disposition is a problem in the lower basin, as is degradation of the delta.  Fish such as carp, aquatic vegetation like mille foil, and zebra mussel have invaded, overtaking native species.  Flooding most certainly will continue to occur in New Orleans and its environs due toglobal warming in the oceans.

At stations on bridges and parks and shorelines near the sites, volunteers from grassroots organizations like the Park Rapids League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club, and Clean Water Action offered information on how people can better serve the river. The organizations were there to spread the word. Itasca, the source of the river, sponsors watershed issues, and clean water; in Minneapolis chemical run off from fertilizers is a prime concern.  The Quad Cities, Iowa, focused on the fragmentation of wildlife habitat, and St Louis on non-source point pollution.  Development issues along the banks and the bluff lands in Memphis are a cause of concern and in New Orleans and Plaquemines Parrish, the main issues are flood control and the dead zone that now no longer washes away in the gulf but remains stagnant, year after year.

The performances were designed to reach out to the non-involved citizen. The casual biker or the person taking the evening stroll onto the Centennial Bridge in the Quad Cities happens to see brightly dressed dancers on the rooftops of buildings and on the barges making colorful hoops and scarves move in the wind. And the biker stays a while.  Someone offers a brochure and he finds out information, say about migratory birds which might be affected by the loss of wild celery tubers or some other food source, and he sees how habitat matters. Or on the positive side, he may understand how banning chemicals, like DDT and PCBs has helped to increased bald eagle and the mink populations along the river, and how activism matters.  “It’s educating people about the ecosystem, making people pay attention,” Hardenbergh comments. “It’s an invitation to be a good steward of the environment.”

The organizers hope that this kind of artistic expression will gain momentum in communities and encourage people to be concerned about the issues. “People never see the site the same way after one of these events ,” says Hardenbergh, who walks through the audiences after a performance and works the crowds.  She hopes the dance will carry its momentum into the years ahead. 

Now, more than ever, with hurricanes devastating the gulf, it is crucial that we take notice and not be complacent.  This dance owes special credit to the performers in New Orleans, who lost the bridge on which they were originally to perform.  They mustered together and created a new program. What else would specialists in healing and nurturing do?

Artists are dedicated to this work. Their enthusiasm will most certainly connect to other art forms. The One River Mississippi Dance, and events of its kind have influenced other conscious-raising events. The Hope and Healing Center in Memphis has invited members of the community to explore movement in a metaphoric sense, through dance. Both dancers and non-dancers have had a chance to create a dance for One River.  People from all walks of life who wish to move, and be moved, participate. The Craft Alliance in St Louis has sponsored a day of visual expression where children will have the opportunity to create river-spirited masks, expressions of the river culture in which we live.  The Mississippi has always had a strong folk culture. In modern times, we have had a tendency to neglect it in the name of progress. We have disciplined the river, urbanized it in parts, and in the process we have sacrificed story and listening to what nature can offer us.

We must make an effort to create a culture- this one needs to realize the ever expanding river has its limits in terms of how badly we can treat it.  Mark Twain was told as a young pilot by Horace Bixby, his mentor: “There’s only one way to be a pilot- that is to get the river by heart.” We have to have a new kind of heart that listens and pays attention for the health of the planet. The arts, the dance, can help us with this desire.

Why, then, is One RiverMississippi important to notice?   Perhaps in our urban environments, in our cities and towns, we need a more therapeutic approach to the land, to encourage those who have grown weary about responding.  Most of us don’t want dirty water, or high flooding in the gulf, but industry has had its way for a long time.  Events can shape us. If we have a choice, why wait for global warming, storms and loss of habitat to calls us to action? Why not be proactive and take part in the dance?

copyright Karolyn Redoutey 2006