Into The Wind: An Interview with Jessica Fogel

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How might the arts contribute to our perceptions of our evolving landscapes as we transition towards renewable energy sources? This is the question which Jessica Fogel, choreographer, Artistic Director, and Professor, has made central to Into The Wind, a dance and music performance that will be presented at the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) in Muskegon, Michigan on August 22nd and 23rd. “The site captured my imagination” states Fogel, “poised as it is between the coal factory and the renewable energy center, with an industrial past still lingering in its soil, a site in transition, inviting new winds.”

It’s no secret that wind energy – and many other forms of renewable energy as well– have been subjects of debate in the United States. However, as Fogel states, “Wind is one of the oldest sources of energy used by humans, and today there are rapidly evolving technologies for harnessing its power. The choices are ours to make. Which way is the wind blowing?”

If you haven’t acquainted yourself with Fogel’s work, you should and can do so, here. Fogel is currently the Artistic Director of Ann Arbor Dance Works, and a Professor of Dance at the University of Michigan. Her multi-layered dances feature unique collaborations, often merging movement, text, music, and digital projections.  She has developed several projects that address ways the arts can provide stewardship for the environment, drawing inspiration from the stories embedded in rural and urban landscapes. And Into The Wind is one of these projects.

Fogel was gracious enough to take the time to be interviewed about Into The Wind. I sincerely hope readers will attend one of the two performances, as they are certain to be gorgeous and thought provoking events.

Could you discuss the significance of the site and how it informed the project?

Everything about the site informed the project—its evolution, its current uses, its physical terrain, its position between new and old forms of energy, its windiness. The wind data gleaned from the site provides some of the sound for the score, as do the voices of former factory workers who worked on the site for decades. I investigated the site on many levels, taking stock of its physical, historical and cultural terrains. Any site invites these questions: Is it peopled or empty, urban or rural, cultivated or wild, quiet or loud, public or private, celebrated or abandoned, or somewhere in between? How does it shift between these poles at different times of day, in different seasons, across decades? Choreographers have been inspired by musical scores, visual art, literature, and much more. A physical site is just another source of inspiration for movement ideas, another kind of score.

Opened in 2003, the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon is part of a 34-acre brownfield site with an intriguing history. One section of the dance speaks directly to the site’s legacy as the former location of Continental Motors that made engines for cars and airplanes from 1905-1993 and was the manufacturing heart of Muskegon. The factory was razed in 1993, and the site was designated a SmartZone by the state in 2001 with an emphasis on developing renewable energy technology. Development of the site, conceived as a green living and working community powered by renewable energy, has proceeded in fits and starts. Across the bay, the 600-foot tower of the BC Cobb coal plant, likely to be shutdown in 2016, dominates the landscape. The probable closing of the coal plant presents new challenges and opportunities for the community.

What initially sparked your idea for this project?

The idea of creating a dance about wind energy first came to me after learning about my colleague Sara Adlerstein’s research on wind energy siting, and her desire to investigate what influences our perceptions of beauty in a landscape. In researching issues surrounding the siting of wind farms, offshore and onshore, I became interested in the emotional dialogues surrounding these developments in communities throughout Michigan and beyond. As it turns out, the majority of Michigan residents recently surveyed by collaborator Sarah Mills are in favor of wind energy, but nonetheless, there are many challenges to overcome in the siting, technology, financing, and transmission of wind energy developments. I chose the site of MAREC because it has been a center for offshore wind energy research in the Great Lakes.

 I know dance making is a collaborative process, but collaboration seems very central to your work. With whom have you collaborated for Into The Wind?

This has been a vast and panoramic project, with many strands to weave together, and many diverse collaborators–possibly the most complex project in that regard that I have ever taken on.  A good deal of my focus has been figuring out how to distill the narrative ideas, embracing questions of public reception of wind farms, while also conveying the particular history and potential of this site–and figuring out how to present this in poetic and kinetic ways.

Several of the people involved in the project I’ve collaborated with before–Sara Adlerstein and Keith Taylor worked with me on our Mapping the River project, which was another project that was concerned with the ways the arts can provide environmental stewardship–in that case, for our local Huron River. Keith’s poem “Circle in the Wind,” that concludes the Into the Wind performance captures the key ideas beautifully. Sara has provided a striking painting that will be displayed in the Muskegon Museum of Art and on four large banners that will be hanging from the MAREC building.

Composers Dave Biedenbender and Robert Alexander had kindly provided music for me for another project inspired by scientific research last year, and I was eager to work with them again, so I invited them to participate in this project. Arn Boezaart, director of MAREC, has been a wonderful collaborator, providing not only the venue, but key community resources and ideas. Collaborator Shawn Bible will be choreographing a 15-minute work also inspired by wind energy that will be placed at the beginning of the performance and will be performed inside the airy, LEED gold-certified MAREC building. A University of Michigan MFA Dance alum, Shawn directs GVSU’s dance program; it’s been great to team up with him and build ties between GVSU and UM. GVSU biologist Erik Nordman’s research on public perceptions of wind farms in West Michigan and has also shaped some of my ideas.

Many of your works are migratory. Could you discuss migration in terms of this work?

In a site dance performance, I’m mapping not only the pathways of the dancers, but also those of the audience, since often the dance moves from one location to another within the performance. There is something special about an audience becoming active participants and taking a literal journey with the performers. In this particular performance, there’s a shift of the audience from indoors, where they will view Shawn’s work, to outdoors, where the lake and the coal factory form a dramatic backdrop for my work. In fact, the outdoor site is proscenium-like, with the lake and coal plant like a painted backdrop, and the audience seated three quarters. Travelling outside to the site allows the audience to literally set foot upon the site’s history and imagine its potential for transformation. It’s one thing to read about planning for a site in a newspaper, but it’s another to actually go there and experience the site itself.

Do you make your work with an audience in mind?

The audience is very much in my mind. For the Muskegon performances, I’ve been concerned with legibility and dialogue, and have also wanted to emphasize the resilience of the Muskegon community.

Every dance I make is a site unto itself that requires special considerations and that considers the entire cycle of performance. Who is the audience? What is the scale of the venue? What is the context of the performance? How is it being marketed, how is an air of expectation being created? With whom am I sharing the concert? How does that affect choices such as duration, tone, casting, production resources, marketing? Are there plans for subsequent performances? What is its portability to new locations?

The performance was initially conceived as a catalyst for dialogues about perceptions of wind energy developments, and that’s still a focus; the performances will conclude with dialogues with the audience. As I learned more about the site, I zeroed in on its manufacturing legacy and the community’s visions for transitioning from old forms of energy production to new technologies for renewable energy.

I’m interested in the ways performance can invite new encounters within a community. I’m also interested in how we build our own history with a site through the process of creating a dance there. Another key question for me is how our dance might change the history of the site, alter the audience’s perceptions of the site, perhaps in lasting ways.

Photograph courtesy Jeff Dykehouse. Robin Wilson, pictured, is an Associate Professor of Dance at the University of Michigan.

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