I learned to love the natural world at my grandparents' log cabin on Lake Vermilion, close to the Canadian border in Minnesota. We kids didn't care that the lake was full of leeches, or that the indoor plumbing was reserved for nighttime use (and even then my tightwad grandpa didn't like to run the generator for flushing). A seemingly bottomless pile of firewood fed the stone fireplace on cold summer mornings. We ate what my Norwegian grandma caught off the dock with her illegal nets and overnight lines. Even the comic books were recycled—moldy old Archie titles passed down by the older cousins and kept in mildewed piles on a tiny screened-in porch. Though we didn't think about it back then, we must've left a tiny smudge of a carbon footprint.
Decades after the property was sold, my brother stopped by and found several suburban-style ranch homes there. The cabin was gone. The pine forest on one side of the point and the birch woods on the other had been cut down. Lawns had replaced the carpet of pine needles over rocks and moss.
In our postindustrial culture, where environmentalism can be a form of nostalgia, it's easy to be green. Who likes smog? Who hates trees? Who doesn't long for the cabin on Lake Vermilion?
That very ease makes ecologically minded art hard to pull off. It tends to come across as a kind of green marketing: we get to feel good just for buying the product—or sitting through the show—and our responsibility stops there.
Aerial Dance Chicago's 90-minute, two-act Unearthed goes down easy, taking a predictable route and reaching no real conclusions. Performed mostly in the air, on suspended lengths of fabric called silks, it floats into our heads . . . and right out again. Dance is never a great vehicle for polemics, but it can give emotional dimension to social and political issues. That doesn't happen here.
Though it's not for lack of trying. The ADC crew have been working on Unearthed since August, and cofounder Chloe Jensen says she's had it in mind for five or six years. Eight of the 11 dancers contributed choreography (a ninth contributor doesn't dance). The artists, moreover, have made dozens of eco-conscious choices: The show's rigging was recycled from previous productions and carried down to the theater in a bike-powered trailer. Music options weren't burned on CDs but shared via flash drive. The recycled costumes were colored with chemical-free dyes. And everyone carpooled, biked, hoofed it, or took public transportation to rehearsals.
Unearthed follows an ultraclear trajectory from an idyllic natural world, through defilement and disruption, to a carefully constructed, hopeful image of interdependence. Brief voiceover clips culled from interviews with unidentified people offer unsupported and unsurprising opinions on global warming, solar power, U.S. energy consumption, and pollution. Snippets of mostly new-agey, commercial music are no more provocative or informative than the spoken commentary.
Still, some of the imagery is striking. Maybe because aerial dance is literally ethereal, it lends itself to visions of paradise. Unearthed opens with a woman resting, like a lazy lion from a peaceable kingdom painting, in a tree made of fabric loops doused with luscious greens and purples by Jacob Snodgrass's lighting. Later, a dancer swims toward us through the air. One performer smiles down from her overhead perch at another twirling on her back on the floor. Extended palms kiss as onstage ensemble members greet others entering the space.
The choreography gets more earthbound toward the end of the first act, as Eden sours. The company mass in the upstage darkness, somersault toward us, then break off into pairs for animal-like confrontations. The second act opens on a pile of dancers whose black swaddling suggests sludge-coated birds and marine life after the gulf oil spill. The hanging lengths of fabric—now washed white, gold, and black by the lights—are shaken to look like tornadoes, and a machinelike pounding marks the music. In one section, the dancers hang inside the silks as if ensconced in pods or cocoons—or, alternately, in shrouds.
Unearthed should've stopped there. Instead, multiple look-alike endings reiterate the lost nobility of nature. The darker turn invites more forceful, grounded movement, but the dancing remains mostly airy and light and acrobatic. ADC's aesthetic simply isn't suited to impassioned statements. The piece culminates with a carefully draped stack of dancers and cloth resembling a 19th-century tableau vivant on a classical Greek theme.
Nostalgia for a lost paradise can backfire by triggering despair over the possibility of regaining it. If Jensen and company want to spur engagement rather than resignation, they'll have to go beyond artistic green marketing. What will prick consciences or motivate action is new knowledge, a radical viewpoint, contagious anger. Human kindness flows all too gently through Unearthed. It needs a spark of vitriol.