“Dancing is powerful; it’s how I experience my own wildness.”–Jennifer Monson in Sierra Magazine
Watching homing pigeons swirling in the sky before alighting on the rooftops in her Brooklyn neighborhood, Jennifer Monson began to see the similarities between her work as a dancer-choreographer and the birds’ movements. “A bird’s sense of navigation is like a dancer’s sense of location while improvising. Both have to know where they are, where they’re going, and how fast they’re going to get there,” she told AI: Performance for the Planet. From this private observation, Monson and her dance company set out on a migration of their own, a five-year journey that brings them to the Twin Cities this spring while tracing the northward journey of geese and ducks, from Texas to Canada, through dance.
The project, Bird Brain: Ducks and Geese, culminates in four free dance performances in key outdoor sites, from the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden to a courtyard adjacent to the Bell Museum of Natural History on the University of Minnesota campus to a former Super Fund site maintained by the National Guard. Two of the four performances involve area grade school students. The dances don’t seek to interpret avian movements, says Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither, but instead use the processes involved with migration as a choreographic structure for the work. “Jennifer is completely redefining the traditional framework of dance as a touring art form, allowing natural phenomenon–in this case, the migratory pattern of ducks and geese–to set her schedule and to deeply influence how the dance is created, how the audience interacts with it, where it is performed, and what the desired impact is on those experiencing it,” he says.
While the choreography is first and foremost a work of dance art, Monson’s overall project and her Walker residency are both built around environmental stewardship goals. The residency, seeking to examine the physical and metaphorical relationship between human activity and natural habitats, has involved area schoolchildren in monthly bird-watching activities and educational programs. A yearlong curriculum, developed by Monson and the Walker, is now in use at schools all along the Texas-to-Canada migratory path. Two of the four performances will be followed by a discussion with scientists, environmental and community activists, and artists. “My hope is that the audience gets turned on to the navigational phenomenon of birds and how crucial it is to preserve and protect bird habitat,” says Monson. “I want people to think about how their actions and their community can affect the birds that are stopping to rest near them.”
BIRD BRAIN’S WINGSPAN
Though it culminates in four public performances, Jennifer Monson’s seven-month residency has a breadth of involvement that spans the entire area-and the country-involving students and dancers, activists and artists, and a host of community organizations. Some key facts:
More than 90 fourth, fifth, and sixth graders from Marcy Open School, Battle Creek Environmental Magnet School, the Paul and Sheila Wellstone School, and the Minnesota Waldorf School are learning about the importance of bird habitats, migratory movements, and environmental stewardship.
Collaborating organizations include Audubon MN, the Bell Museum of Natural History, Journey North, the Minnesota Ornithologist Union, the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Minnesota National Guard, and Grand Excursion 2004.
The Walker and Monson have developed a 25-page classroom resource guide that integrates the study of bird migration with the disciplines of dance, art, and writing. Students in Minnesota, Texas, Iowa, Illinois, New York, and at other schools along the Bird Brain tour/migration route are actively using this guide.