By and large, dance artists are aware people; examples abound of dance works that have spoken, poignantly and courageously, to issues that humanity and the world face. With the way things are going nowadays, aware people are turning an eye towards environmental issues: climate change, environmental justice, the health of natural resources, keeping wild spaces beautiful, and much more. As such, if you’re a dancer, chances are high that you care about protecting the environment.

Yet, that can be easier said than done; even with the best intentions, you might not know how to get started. You might not know how to live more sustainably within a #dancelife: how to create less waste, and maybe even to make dance works that can spark meaningful change when it comes to our collective environmental impact.

Beyond ourselves, we never know who we can inspire to live more sustainably

To get some tips for dancers on how to live more sustainability, and to get more inspired to do so, I spoke with two dance artists who have done just that: who’ve learned to live a more environmentally-friendly life in dance, as well as created initiatives towards positive change in the arena of environmental sustainability.

Katie Pustizzi: Director, Liquid Spine

Boston-based choreographer Katie Pustizzi has always been “interested in dance as an avenue for social inquiry, as well as international exchange,” she shares. As a dance teaching artist, she’s loved to travel and engage with dance communities across the world, as well as to use natural imagery in her pedagogy. In and out of work, she’s also loved being surrounded by nature (and near the ocean in particular). Pustizzi is passionate about protecting the environment. She decided to blend all of that together – and Liquid Spine was born.

Through Liquid Spine, Pustizzi’s mission has been immersion in the land where she sets work: “site sensitive work that engages communities and collaborators,” as she describes it. That’s been in several different locations across the globe. It’s all towards a larger goal of addressing a specific environmental concern in the region at hand: be it industrial waste, deforestation, the health of the local ecosystem, et cetera. These initiatives are grounded in “community-based local action that ripples out,” she notes.

Katie Pustizzi beach cleaning
beach cleaning with Katie Pustizzi - photo: Hayley White

What do these projects look like? As an example, a Boston-based event from Liquid Spine (early fall 2022) included an international dance film festival and a community beach clean-up. The film festival included ten different dance films, all with an environmental message or theme. As for the beach clean-up, Pustizzi found that some people who had participated in it received the dance films in a different manner. It “engaged people in the art in an embodied way” – which she hopes gets them “hooked to pursue” further environmental action.

To Pustizzi, in these efforts communities become more connected, towards a goal that unites all within them – just as the spine connects parts of the body in order to accomplish functional goals. Inclusivity is an important part of that; Pustizzi welcomes all who come to these initiatives as they are. She’s fully aware that there are many different perspectives out there, and the goal is not to change anyone or make anyone act in a particular way. Rather, her goal is “dialogue and awareness,” she affirms. “There’s not just one way to solve the climate crisis”; there’s very much a place for all of our skills, interests, and vantage points.

Making a sustainability difference: Pustizzi's tips for dancers 

1. Think globally, but act locally.

Engage local communities. They know what specific issues they’re facing, and often have great ideas when it comes to solutions. You don’t have to tackle the whole problem of environmental sustainability – in fact, no one of us individually can. Yet we can make change in our own communities. What’s the role that you can fulfill?

2. Connect with experts on this work

In science, technology, cultural knowledge, and more. Don’t try to shoulder it all alone! Find your circle of experts with whom you can collaborate and make change: whether they be scientists, activists, Indigenous leaders, et cetera.

3. Commit to a feasible goal.

Even if it’s small, accomplishing it can really matter. Small changes can be incredibly powerful, because they can have big ripple effects. Some places to start: when costuming a work, get something via donation versus new, and carry a reusable water bottle. What is one change that you can make in your everyday life that you can stick with? Even if it feels small, even insignificant, it can make a true difference if you can maintain it as a new habit.

4. When it comes to creative work with environmental themes, be intentional about shaping audience response.

Put something out there that’s within your audience’s grasp. When it comes to pedagogy that can drive change, Pustizzi shares a helpful tiered framework: awareness/knowledge, change of perspective, first steps of action (for example, new changes of behavior), and lifelong action (habits/behaviors that “stick”). The ideal response is that last tier, but an audience member reaching any new step in that framework is a positive development.

Keaton Leier: Co-Founder and Director, Artists Climate Collective

Keaton Leier, currently dancing with National Ballet of Canada, has always been passionate about the natural world. He’s also always been passionate about dance, and his career in dance when he entered the professional dance world. Unfortunately, he found that those two main interests could sometimes be at odds. “It’s hard to live a sustainable life as a dancer, because of the way we go about things in the dance world,” he notes.

For example, a whole ensemble’s costumes can be made – and then the design vision changes and the costumes have to be reconstructed. Single-use hair and makeup products all too often aren’t environmentally-friendly, he adds. Leier has been committed to a sustainable lifestyle, in and out of dance – but he also knows he, as one person, can only do so much. He saw room for change and growth, and wanted to drive that change. That could only be done through efforts beyond himself, he knew.

Keaton Leier in an arabesque
Keaton Leier - photo: Lalo Torres

Along with his Co-Founders Charlotte Nash and Madeline Bez, Leier created an intersection for dance and environmental sustainability – and Artists Climate Collective (ACC) was born. When you’re passionate about something and see that a difference can be made, “you just have to mesh things together and make art out of it,” he believes. Who better than you to take the leap and just do it, one could argue!

One big advantage of such an organization is community building: bringing together like-minded people, so that their impact can be more than the sum of its parts. The people are out there; “there are many dancers, in many different companies, who feel the way I do” when it comes to environmental sustainability, and how dance can play a part in it, he notes. It just takes having a space for those people to unite and work together in common purpose.

Maybe the first step is building community, perhaps growing an existing community – so that such a community can make a bigger impact than you could make just as yourself.

Leier and his Co-Founders have even gotten feedback from people in the ACC network that such a community space has been meaningful, he shares. “Artists have told us that it helps to feel like they can have a voice in the work that they’re doing through ACC,” he shares. Going forward, they hope to amplify that effect: making the ACC community “bigger, more interactive, more of a space to connect” – so that they can amplify their work further and spur even more positive change.

Protecting the environment: Leier’s tips for making positive environmental change

Get things trending!

Use your social media presence and public voice to highlight environmental sustainability issues. More and more nowadays, social media is where messages, meanings, and ideas get the most traction. Leverage that for good! Share what you’re doing and the impact that it’s making. Put solid information out there. Highlight the great work of committed, smart people who you know.

Reduce, reuse, recycle!

The less waste we create, the more positive impact we can make when it comes to the environment. Beyond ourselves, we never know who we can inspire to live more sustainably. For example, other dancers might see us using reusable snack containers and decide to get some for themselves, versus relying on single-use plastic snack bags. They might really like our ballet skirt from a sustainable dancewear company and buy a few for themselves!

Create your own artistic work, work that can highlight sustainability issues.

When you’re a dancer in other people’s works, you can’t decide whether or not that work speaks to environmental matters. Yet if you make your own work, you can decide what themes it imparts and what meanings it speaks. Beyond dance, if you paint, sing, write poetry, or create art in any other medium, those skillsets offer even more avenues for artistic work with the potential to spark environmental change. Another benefit of making your own work is the creative freedom that doing so can confer (something that ACC has offered Leier, his co-founders, and their collaborators, he notes).

Keep longer-term goals in mind – it doesn’t all have to happen right now.

You might currently be in a context where the change that you can make is limited. You might have to first build certain foundations. Maybe the first step is building community, perhaps growing an existing community – so that such a community can make a bigger impact than you could make just as yourself. All of that matters, and there’s no rush. Yes, when it comes to environmental issues, often we only do have so much time. Yet there’s a lot of work to be done, and Rome wasn’t built in a day. Settle in for a marathon, rather than a sprint – taking time to rest and recharge along the way, of course, so that you can keep running for the long-term.

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