Arena Dances addressed the Earth's changing environment with its premiere "Thermal: Meditations on Climate Change" at the American Swedish Institute in February.
Six months later, the company presented the work outdoors in the hot August air at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. The change in season between that earlier iteration and the most recent one provided an apropos contrast for a work that laments the impact climate change has on the living things that inhabit the planet.
Three dancers endured a desolate landscape in a world created by choreographer Mathew Janczewski. (At the arboretum, Dustin Haug, Javan Mngrezzo and Betsy Schaefer Roob performed the roles. Mngrezzo and Schaefer Roob took over for original cast members Rachel Clark and José A. Luis.)
The sounds of bugs, a distant lawn mower and cars from a nearby highway Sunday evening added to the soundscape by Joshua Clausen, which encompassed ominous rumbling noises, cinematic orchestral music, squeaks and sounds of static.
The dancers seemed to be travelers forced to migrate because of the changing landscape and climate. Whether they were humans, creatures of some sort or flora (spoken text by the performers referenced seeds and plants), they appeared to shift among those identities and states.
Janczewski, who has led Arena Dances since founding the company more than 25 years ago, employs an expressiveness and engaging use of tension and release. His dances, even when exploring difficult topics, highlight an element of beauty and compassion. His gentle choreography in "Thermal" provided an experience to marvel at the human body and all it is capable of. There's acrobatic athleticism in Janczewski's work as well as a gentle interplay of torsos, limbs and skin.
The abstract nature of the choreography and design also leaned toward an open interpretation of who the travelers represented precisely. With a fluidity of movement, open-hearted presence and a cohesion of bodies moving as one, the dancers journeyed together, finding resilience through their reliance on one another.
Janczewski employed quite a bit of weight-sharing in the choreography, and found a balance between simultaneous movement, solo and duet sections, and divergent patterns performed in connectivity with the three dancers. The movers always felt like they were part of the same entity, facing the extremes of the environment together.
In the Swedish Institute version, a giant sculptural object sat in the midst of the performance space. The rather amorphous-looking installation by visual artist Kim Heidkamp evoked a polar creature — perhaps a bear or something mythical in scope. The arboretum performance did not feature the sculptural installation — an understandable production decision given the delicate nature of Heidkamp's work, made with scraps of paper. Instead, the setting of the shadeless outdoor space provided the backdrop of the warming planet.
The dancers wore quilted thermal clothing with angular space collars in the beginning that looked futuristic in nature. As the piece progressed, they became too warm and removed a layer of their clothes. That gesture was symbolic in the first iteration of the piece, when it was performed indoors during the wintertime. In the heat of summer, the move felt all the more urgent.
Ultimately, this second iteration of "Thermal" felt not so much like a remount of the same work, but rather the second part of one exploration. And one that peered at our future with dread.