Navigating the Storm: A Conversation with KT Nelson About Dead Reckoning

By Marie Tollon

Pictured Corey Brady and Josie Garthwaite Sadan
Photo by RJ Muna

Dominating recent headlines, the scientific world is now in unanimous agreement that 2014 was the warmest year on record, thus bringing back to the table the burning issues—no pun intended—of the inevitability of global warming. Environmental experts welcome the efforts of institutions such as the United Nations to work toward a universal agreement to address climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Yet they warn that it might not be possible to stall temperatures from increasing by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. “According to a large body of scientific research, that is the tipping point at which the world will be locked into a near-term future of drought, food and water shortages, melting ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels and widespread flooding — events that could harm the world’s population and economy,” writes journalist Coral Davenport. “While a breach of the 3.6 degree threshold appears inevitable, scientists say that United Nations negotiators should not give up on their efforts to cut emissions. At stake now, they say, is the difference between a newly unpleasant world and an uninhabitable one.”

How can we expect to navigate a “newly unpleasant world”? In one sequence of KT Nelson’s last piece Dead Reckoning, dancers storm across the stage, looking up to the sky as if searching for an answer to their disorientation and the loss of their hold on their surroundings. The ominous feeling their movements convey is heightened by the menacing undertone of the violins playing in composer Joan Jeanrenaud’s score. At one point the audio is torn apart by the screeching sound of trees falling and the shattering of bark echoing throughout the room. Touching upon the exploitative relationship between humans and their natural environment, Dead Reckoning is a piece for 10 dancers which stemmed out of Nelson’s sabbatical in Death Valley in the late fall of 2013. Nelson and I sat down to talk about the piece.

Marie Tollon: During Unplugged, a work-in-progress showing last November, you mentioned that one of the stronger images that arose from your time in Death Valley was the magnitude of the landscape.

KT Nelson: In Death Valley, you really experience the magnitude of the towering mountain ranges against the below sea level valley. Because there is minimal or almost no plant life the rock formations are unsparingly exposed. You get a glimpse of what forces went into creating these formations. There you are, below sea level, at the bottom of this valley and you just see magnitude. Literally, people look like these little ants walking around. This was the spirit in which the piece was made.

MT: Can you talk more about the title of the piece?

KN: I first read about this term from naturalist Kathleen Moore, a philosophy teacher at Oregon State. She had a chapter called Dead Reckoning, [where she recounted] sailing with her daughter in cloud cover. She began experiencing anxiety about their situation. Apparently dead reckoning is a term when you navigate without the stars. Stars are highly predictable and dependable reference points. Without them you use intuition and less dependable reference points. When you do this, your navigation is subject to accumulative error. I applied this concept to the implications of
navigating climate change.

MT: A cascade of paper confetti, representing snowfall, plays an important role in the piece. In one scene, the floor is covered with it, and when the dancers move across the stage, it flutters around, reminiscent of celebration and playfulness.

KN: There is joy when we engage in nature. But how far we take it, is fairly unthoughtful. At the rate we play in it now, we will change the quality of what it is. What we know now will most likely not exist in the future. Nature will never stop being, but the relationship we have had with it is going to change because we are changing it. We have been brought up so thoroughly immersed in convenience that we really have no sense of the implications of convenience. I don’t heat my house. I have a compost toilet, storm water, grey water and solar energy serving my home. I’m trying to live the walk, because if I can find pleasure in it, then there is a way through this. If there can be artistry, pleasure and depth in living differently, in a way that is not so harmful, then I think we have a chance.

MT: In the closing section of the piece, we see two dancers walking casually on another dancer.

KN: Yes, as we carry on with our lives, we often walk on and over something, indifferently, without noticing what we have done. It’s not dramatic but it is real. It is done without knowing. This lack of awareness although relatively mundane, in the long run may be deadly. As I said during Unplugged, I’m not mad at people, but I’m perplexed by the fact that we continue to be so unaware. It’s like we are under a spell. Why do we remain so unaware, even though we know better? The section after the male and female duets is about youthfulness, how we all go into nature and play around in it, and yet incrementally destroy it, whether it’s ski lifts, ropes, spikes left in rocks or bike trails. We love it, but we are affecting it deeply and unconsciously. My message really resides at the two ends of the piece. And the middle is a journey of the ways we are—like nature and how we engage with each other and with nature.

MT: In an earlier conversation, you mentioned the work of your mother who was an environmental activist.

KN: My mother was so upset – by how we treated the natural world, in 1970’s, she said: “It’s going to be gone!” She couldn’t believe the greed that was destroying the diverse landscape of Southern California. She believed in bioregions, open space, public access and the sacred sites of the Native Americans. When the visitor center opened for the Santa Monica Mountains Park and Seashore Recreation Area in Los Angeles, she was identified as the primary grass roots force behind this National Park. Both my parents loved nature but her values were deeply embedded in me.

MT: At several moments, one of the dancers willfully puts his hands of a fellow dancer’s head and turns it in another direction, to face the audience or forward. Is it a hint that for you, the purpose of art is to shift the focus back to what humanity should really be looking at?

KN: Yes, in the beginning, Dennis is the one who dances while [the other dancers] are watching him. He is the one that is beginning to notice. That’s the beginning of awareness.

MT: Is this your first collaboration with composer Joan Jeanrenaud?

KN: Yes. I have used her music before when I have done guest choreography. So I know her music well. [Joan and I] would meet once a week and spend a few hours together. I knew which music of hers I really love. So I told her: “I love the fragility of this, or the pulse of this.” She would pull some things off the computer, and asked me what I liked about those things. We would deconstruct and break things down. I sent her some of the photographs of my trip. I talked to her about my opening and closing images and she built the music for those two [scenes] since they were very clear. That’s how we proceeded. And then she came to rehearsal and said “Ok, now I get it.” Then she went back to the studio and worked on it some more.

MT: What are some of the tasks you gave to the dancers to generate material?

KN: I used the concept of “implications” to develop problems for the dancers to generate movement. In our first exercise, I asked the dancers to close their eyes, and listen to the sounds around the room. They worked in pairs. One would listen and the other would video the one listening. As the one dancer listened, they were to move in response to the volume and quality of the sound they heard. After watching the video of their movement responses, they collected the movement that was interesting to them and made a solo phrase. My interest in “implication” is that we rarely recognize the implications of things. The impact, the response, the reaction to our actions were the material that I was interested in. This exploration of hearing came from meditating in the desert. I would sit and realize how much sound there actually was. [Another exercise] came from standing on this huge dune in a field of sand dunes. You are 12 stories up. You look down and it looks so soft, you could just tumble and fall, and be fine. In rehearsal, we folded paper airplanes and sent them off the balcony at ODC into the street. The dancers video their plane’s path and then created a movement phrase from that. In this exercise I really wanted them to rigorously follow the phrasing of the plane. I did not want that phrasing to be aestheticized. So we followed the plane’s path and in the dance the dancers who are falling are being caught, because when standing on that dune in the desert it felt that nature would catch you.

An earlier version of this interview appeared on the Triple Dog Dare blog in November 2014.

This article appeared in the March 2015 issue of In Dance.

Marie Tollon is the current ODC Theater Writer in Residence and Programming Associate.