Dance groups leap into environmental communication


Bullfrogs Ballet students in North Macedonia bow at the end of a performance.

By Reese Carlson

Pirouettes, leaps and pliés don’t come to mind when you think of environmental justice.

But for Michigan State University theater professors Deric McNish and Rob Roznowski,  dance and theater are the perfect communicative devices for such serious topics.

“The cultural impact of creating artistic work with social justice behind it could be huge,” Roznowski said.

MSU theater students in East Lansing, Michigan, and a North Macedonian ballet company, Bullfrogs Ballet, are collaborating on the Ripple Effect, a project funded by a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Embassy and MSU’s Office of Research and Innovation. It addresses environmental issues that both North Macedonians and Michiganders face, like water pollution and industrial pollution.

North Macedonia is in southeastern Europe, almost 5,000 miles from Michigan.

“Our students will be put in contact with North Macedonian art students, dance students, theater students,” McNish said. “We’re going to have conversations about the similar environmental problems we’re facing, the potential solutions, and what role the arts can play.”

Michigan State students can enroll next fall in a class created for the Ripple Effect. Students of all majors are encouraged to enroll, McNish said. You don’t have to be a dancer.

“The students will decide what aspects about water, water security, water pollution, etc. matter most to them and the community,” Roznowski said. “We will create different theatrical styles and acts designed to communicate those issues.”

Bullfrogs Ballet is a dance company in Skopje, North Macedonia. It is for dancers ages 5-25, but this program focuses on the age group closest to the MSU students. The grant will cover the cost for Roznowski and McNish to travel to North Macedonia to work directly with the ballet students. The North Macedonian ballet instructors will then travel to East Lansing to workshop with the MSU theater students, McNish said.

“I was doing a similar project with the U.S. Embassy in Russia when I saw the U.S. Embassy in Skopje was advertising interest in doing a project with the arts and social justice,” McNish said. “I immediately reached out because that’s what I do here at Michigan State.”

Depending on what the students decide, the project could look very different. The dances will be choreographed to represent the issues they choose. There could even be props related to the environmental topics the students pick, McNish said.

Social and environmental justice experts in North Macedonia and in the United States will be consulted for the project, Roznowski said. They will help bridge the gap between the arts and environmental justice.

Amber Pearson, an MSU associate professor of geography, is the social justice consultant on the Michigan side of the project.

“Water insecurity is an often ignored problem faced in many places, including the United States,” Pearson said in an email. “Many people across the world lack safe, reliable, sufficient, or affordable water for a thriving life.”

Pearson researches how physical and social environments improve health, often in the face of socioeconomic adversity.

“The idea is that you can get young students to engage with these topics through an art form that interests them, dance or theater, for example,” McNish said. “This creates interest and draws focus to the topic, especially when the public comes to view the end product.”

Dancing has been scientifically explored as a form of justice and communication. A 2018 article by Columbia University graduate and performer Sadi Mosko, published in Consilience Journal, considers the idea that dance is a universal language and can be used to communicate complicated topics, like environmentalism and climate injustice.

The article looked at studios that employ unique forms of dance to communicate scientific concepts and how they were received. One used dirt and water as a part of a performance to convey the human connection with nature. As the dance progresses, the dirt eventually plays the part of prop, set, costume and performer.

Unscientific people are more likely to engage in scientific topics when they are presented in an unconventional way, like through dance, Mosko reported. The dance puts the concepts into a new context without using statistics or threatening another world-shattering disaster. Viewers are led to reconsider their views on their own terms.

McNish and Roznowski hope the Ripple Effect inspires further environmental theater.

The hope is to get an artistic community that crosses borders to take an issue like the environment and create art that prompts communities to talk about it, McNish said.

“That’s something that is sustainable and would allow other people to become involved in these issues.”

The Ripple Effect debuts November 2024 as a live stream from North Macedonia and East Lansing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *