Dancing on a Crowded Planet

Thirty dancers are barely enough to fill the shadow of the life-sized blue whale that hangs, mid-dive, in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Yet on ...

Thirty dancers are barely enough to fill the shadow of the life-sized blue whale that hangs, mid-dive, in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Yet on three nights in March, their seething performance succeeded in making the 29,000-square-foot room feel overpopulated. The performance was the product of collaboration between the choreographer Karole Armitage and the ecologist Paul Ehrlich. Armitage, 61, is famous for her funky, high-style spin on technically exquisite ballet. Ehrlich, 82, is best known for his 1968 best seller The Population Bomb, which urged population-control measures to forestall ecological disaster. Now the two have come together to create On the Nature of Things, a dramatization of Ehrlich’s argument that the present environmental crisis demands a “change in consciousness.”1

A dancer bends to touch the earth, then walks on, entranced by what she holds in her hand. She and her partner move slowly, lyrically, bearing each other’s weight, attuned to their surroundings and to each other. They seem to be traversing an unfamiliar landscape, experimenting with new ways of moving.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich, the “narrator,” speaks from a chair beside the stage (in a croaky voice that he blamed apologetically on a cold). In recent years Ehrlich has repeatedly referred to a “culture gap,” the divide that “has developed over the past century or so between what our society knows and what each individual knows.”2 He seeks to close this gap by finding new ways to “disseminate” basic knowledge of ecology and human behavior. What we glimpse as the dance opens is a scene from the world before “the gap”—that is, Armitage’s interpretation of an intuitive, unmediated, prescientific way of knowing.

With a change of music and lighting, more dancers enter, and Ehrlich warns of the consequences of population growth. Clad uniformly in long-sleeved orange leotards, the dancers look at first like aliens in a Star Trek episode. As the stage becomes more crowded and the dancers’ movements frenzied and contorted, those orange torsos seem instead to belong to a species of insect. They proliferate like pests, threatening to swarm the habitats of the polar bears and walruses that call this room home. In their jousting for space, the dancers convey the combined burden of our species on this planet. Suddenly the hall feels small. The dancers lash out at each other wildly; they blindfold each other with their hands; one rides another’s back, her hands over his eyes. We recognize in these moves the intense emotional investment in denying human responsibility for environmental destruction.

When the “change of consciousness” comes, it takes the form of a return to lyrical, synchronized movement. The dancers once again turn their focus outward. Again they reach to touch the earth, now lifting their hands to their faces as if gratefully bathing them in clean water. From his chair, Ehrlich asks the audience to consider the minuteness of the earth in relation to the universe. As in the ancient Epicurean treatise “On the Nature of Things,” we are asked to contemplate the human place in the cosmos without resorting to a narrative of divine creation. On the stage, the dancers point in unison to the heavens (actually the blue whale’s snout). A bright future is symbolized by the entrance of graceful child dancers. As the dance concludes, those orange leotards have come to look like the rationalized apparel of an ecologically responsible utopia.


Environmental science might seem an unlikely inspiration for dance, but On the Nature of Things demonstrates the medium’s potential to bring the science to life. The success of Armitage’s choreography lies in dramatizing what is implicit when scientists speak of ecological destruction in terms of humanity’s “footprint” on the earth, meaning the accumulated impact of our species on the living and nonliving environment. Dance is the medium uniquely suited to exploring what it would mean to lighten our step.

Indeed, the necessary “change in consciousness” is not simply a cognitive shift. It requires imagining how it would feel to tread more lightly on the earth. The dancers evoke a new, emphatically kinesthetic mindfulness. Ecological awareness dawns as a shift from the frenetic, automatic thrusting of the dance’s middle sequence to the gingerly, balanced, and responsive partnering of the closing scene. Emerging from this performance, one cannot help but step with more forethought.

Examined more closely, though, the performance threatens to undercut the force of its own message. One weakness lies in the narrative’s claim that the roots of the environmental crisis lie in the insatiability of something called “human nature.” That universalizing claim ignores the fact that responsibility for the crisis is far from evenly apportioned across cultures. But enough ink has been spilled critiquing the politics of Ehrlich’s environmentalism. A more surprising shortcoming arises from the staging of the relationship between science and art. By positioning Ehrlich offstage, as a voice without a body, the performance revives the outdated stereotype of the scientist as a source of universal, disembodied knowledge, unmarked by gender or race.

Yet scientists know what they know in and through their bodies. As one of my favorite physics professors used to insist when the class expressed confusion, you’ve got to feel the equations in your bones. Any climate scientist can tell you that knowledge of global warming is produced by bodies as much as by minds: surveying icebergs, measuring glacier retreat, and drilling ice cores are all intensely physical, multisensory experiences. Even the most sophisticated climate models today derive historically from the embodied knowledge of winds and tides that has long been second nature to sailors and fishermen. Ask an expert to explain the science, and chances are she will be hard-pressed not to gesture with her body or at least her hands. If you doubt this, take a look at the recent film Three Views of the Higgs and Dance. The particle physicists interviewed for it appear stumped by the question of how to create a dance about the Higgs boson. Nonetheless, they gamely offer suggestions. The gesticulations they use to explain the dancing Higgs, when set to music, become their own form of choreography.

Efforts to close “the culture gap” must take care not to exaggerate the gap between science and other ways of knowing. At a moment when the authority of science is at its most fragile, we need realistic representations of the nature of scientific knowledge, not alienating myths. The modern sciences have developed a unique array of methods for building consensus and translating knowledge into action. To say that science has something in common with dance is not to impugn those achievements. Like dance, the sciences are languages for expressing and refining physical intuitions. On the Nature of Things shows how science and dance can partner to deepen our visceral understanding of human impacts on the earth.


  1. See Ehrlich and Robert E. Ornstein, Humanity on a Tightrope: Thoughts on Empathy, Family, and Big Changes for a Viable Future (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).
  2. See, for instance, “The MAHB, the Culture Gap, and Some Really Inconvenient Truths,” PLoS Biol, Vol. 8, no. 4 (April 2010), pp. 1–3.