Climate Conversations with Vanessa Grasse
Introducing: Vanessa Grasse
Vanessa is a dance and multidisciplinary artist, originally from Sicily and based in Leeds. She explores the crossover between choreography, walking-art and installation, as a vehicle for somatic experiencing and engaging with public spaces, through site-responsive, improvisational, participatory, and cross-disciplinary practices. Her work is rooted in ecological approaches that acknowledge our entangled nature with environments, with human and non-human communities. She holds an MA from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London. Her choreographic work has been commissioned by festivals and institutions including Dance4,The Great Exhibition of The North, Dance City, Badischer Kunstverein, Hull Freedom Festival, The University of Leeds, amongst many others; and has toured across the UK, Europe and East Asia. She is a Dance Partner Project artist at Yorkshire Dance with her current Arts Council England funded project The Land We Are.
As part of Climate Conversations, Vanessa has created a blog with accompanying audio and visuals examining our wild stories and connection.
Tuning into our ‘wild soul stories’ and our earthly compass: an eco-somatic approach
This text is intersected with short audio guided explorations. Feel free to move, explore, digest, rest, breathe, go out for a wander, as you read and listen to this blog post.
What are our ‘wild soul stories’ as writer Mary Reynolds Thompson would call it. How do we let them be present and ripple into the world to allow our ecological selves to fully manifest? How can we let old and new ‘wild soul stories’ emerge in our present and into the future?
With my current project The Land We Are, I embark on a journey that questions how we can experience some form of profound connectivity and care for the land and its ecosystems, and how we can do this from an embodied place. I explore how to create access points, offer seeds and open windows for others into a kinesthetic, felt and empathic experience with our ecosystems. My investigations in nature find roots in a rich eco-somatic lineage, learning from incredible teachers and established practices such as Anna Halprin, Body Weather, Helen Poynor, Andrea Olsen and Caryn McHose’s Body and Earth. I also integrate somatic practices such as Contact Improvisation, Body Mind Centering and Qigong, as well as my site-responsive choreographic processes and influences from Walking Art, Land Art and Environmental Arts traditions. But at its source, the roots of my recent investigations reach further, down to ancient olive trees on the east side of Sicily, where I grew up.
My grandparents grew up in the countryside of rural Sicily. My grandmother in the green Nebrodi mountains, my grandfather from the yellow rural agricultural center of the island. Like many others, they eventually decided to leave behind the rural lifestyle, move to a village closer to a main city and contribute to the urban and commercial progress of the island. The next generations continued to follow those urbanised steps. A similar human-urban story has happened at different scales throughout the world for many centuries. My grandparents retained their bond with the land and eventually bought an olive grove so that they could maintain this earthy connection. In this land inhabited by olive trees and sun baked soil, I spent most of my weekends through my childhood and teenage years. Playing with my sister and cousins amongst the trees, making dens, sleeping in the open air, helping the adults to harvest the olives. This olive grove nurtured my love for nature, it planted itself in me, the trees I touched, the fruits I ate, the muddy footsteps I took, are still present within me and ripple throughout my life, affecting the way I relate with the world. My deep sense of connection with nature has never left me and eventually seeped into my creative practice. As writer Mary Raynold Thomson would call it, my childhood time with the olive grove is my ‘wild soul story’, “an experience in nature that has helped shape who we are and how we live”. (Thompson, 2014, p. xv)
Many of us might have a ‘wild soul story’, in different ways and scales, even having grown up in the city. Perhaps with a landscape, a tree, a garden, a beach, liminal green urban spaces, green growing through the cracks of bricks, a plant, wind gusting through the buildings, puddles in the pouring rain, flocks of birds, urban foxes. Different environments can afford personal connective experiences of nature and ecosystems.
I was very lucky to have had the opportunity as a child to spend so much time with the elements in an open landscape, with the trees, growing and harvesting food. Many of us did not have and still do not have the opportunity to create this type of bond with the land. Unfortunately access to nature can, still too often, be a privilege; something that needs addressing and changing. Access to nature should be a vital right for everyone.
These childhood experiences with the natural world can be profound and can have a lifetime resonance. The child’s openness, spontaneity, playfulness and curiosity for the world favours an organic capacity to form bonds, interspecies relationships, experience love and friendships with the non-human world. Although experiencing meaningful connection with the non-human world is possible at any stage in our life.
We exist in breathing symbiosis with other creatures. We breathe in the oxygen that plants produce, plants and trees absorb the CO2 that we release with each breath.
We are made of the same materials as the Earth, and we share the same minerals, water and proteins as plants, fungi, bacteria, rocks, soil, rivers. We are multiple. Our “…body is material, and yet this vital materiality is not fully or exclusively human. [Our] flesh is populated and constituted by different swarms of foreigners…the bacteria in the human microbiome…We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes.” (Bennett, 2010, p. 112-13)
We are nature too. We are earthly creatures, moving, functioning and looking the way we do because of an evolutionary journey made possible by our entanglement with the water, earth, atmosphere, and other creatures of this planet. This awareness of interconnection is our earthly compass. Without this interconnective, caring and belonging compass, lack of care, consumerism and individualism can disorient us, letting us deplete, trash and take advantage of our home. What does it take to re-find and nurture our earthly compass?
Our current climate crisis demands us to form meaningful and empathic bonded relationships with the land and ecosystems. What kind of experiences and what kind of knowing do we need to be able to form these bonds, to experience belonging, meaningful connectivity and to fall in love with the planet?
As a dancer, choreographer and somatic practitioner, my tools reside within the embodied and the experiential knowing. In my work, whether based in nature or in other environments, I have been asking how we can access an embodied knowing of relationality, of belonging, of connection, of ecological empathy.
When our body-mind is fully present to the felt sense of a relational self, when we invest in expanding our curiosity about the world and ‘otherness’ through our kinesthetic-proprioceptual-sensorial-attentional-emotional self, we can begin to access meaningful experiences of intersubjectivity, empathy, bonding, belonging, relating. Like those ‘wild soul’ rich moments of play and connection with nature that some of us remember from our childhood, these vivid experiences of full experiential engagement with an environment can be transformative imprints. They can make us feel profoundly connected with places and other species. They can create ripples into the world and create legacy. They can support a feeling of deep care, meaningful caring that I see as a form of love. Love can be a sense of intersubjective warm entanglement, emerging from our embodiment and our ecological complexity. Others might call this deep appreciation or bond. Care that comes from love is far more sustainable than care that comes from having been told to care, from having to do the right thing, or from fear, or from following the latest climate-conscious trends.
Eco-somatic practices can offer a framework to access a meaningful body-mind experience of interconnectivity with the more than human world. They can invite us to immerse ourselves in the world of felt experience, allowing us to touch and be touched by an ecosystem, and experiencing how we are part of it. Supporting an experiential understanding of interconnectivity with cognitive and scientific knowledge can be equally important. However, in my own experience what ultimately creates a lasting imprint are inner ‘aha moments’ of discovery, and an experience of affect. Those vivid connective experiences that touch us and transform us.
(Lefts: lungs, photo credit unknown. Right: Mycorrhizal in roots of pine seedling, photo by Professor David Read)
Branching systems are present throughout different organisms and biological and geological evolutions. Trees, rivers, our nervous and fluid systems, mycelium, all share similar evolutionary branching-vessles-network pathways.
In 2017, I invited science writer Philip Ball to come to the studio and contribute to my project MESH. He shared with us his knowledge of pattern formation in nature and organization of complex systems; something I had become deeply fascinated with by reading his trilogy of books Branches, Flow and Shapes.
In somatic dance practice we often speak of Experiential Anatomy, exploring from an inner sensing and felt knowing of our anatomy, whilst combining it with scientific anatomical knowledge and imagery. Similarly when exploring with a natural environment, I weave in scientific knowledge and imagery of the ecological anatomy of a place, a plant etc. This becomes entangled with our own bodily felt experience and own experiential anatomy, to form a sense of experiential ecology of self and place.
My passion for shared evolutionary pathways, such as branches, inevitably reappeared more recently during my explorations with trees, which from 2018 I have framed under this umbrella project called The Land We Are. I have been spending time moving and reflecting in green and woodland environments both alone and with others. Trees and the materiality of wood often came to the foreground of the research, in a process of acknowledging the importance of trees in our climate crisis and nurturing and questioning my curiosity for relationality and ecological entanglement. I spent time moving, walking, creating scores, drawing, exploring with trees and with parts of trees, found branches and roots, in their transformative process. Investigating how I might experience the vitality of these particular ‘materials’- living being-ecosystems, and how these could meet our own felt and vital materiality.
This past year in isolation presented a great opportunity to continue exploring outdoors. I couldn’t touch other humans, but I could still touch the ground, the trees, the rocks, the sky. During the various lockdowns I have returned to this tree at different times.
(Photo: Vanessa Grasse)
Trees are communities not individuals. By engaging with them we can discover how much we have in common. Trees’ incredible carbon capture capacity plays a crucial role in the climate equilibrium. Amongst trees we can read and be read by the language of interconnection, of symbiosis, of photosynthesis, of nesting, of rooting, of growing and composting.
The tree I have been dancing with is a White Poplar that lives in Sugarwell Hill, a green belt between Meanwood road and Scott Hall road, two major busy arteries in Leeds. I had passed through Sugarwell Hill in the past to get from A to B, but never fully wandered there and engaged with it. Our social and travel restrictions allowed many of us to begin paying more attention to our immediate outdoor sorroundings and green spaces. I discovered I had a lovely woodland just outside my doorstep. Sugarwell Hill is not just a small green path but a rich and vibrant woodland. I was not the only person discovering it, so many other people started enjoying it too. I had never seen that many people walking there. Paths that I thought were secret, where I would go to dance with the trees, soon became common routes.
Paying attention to where you are, slowing down and engaging with what is present, are key somatic approaches, they are also important ecological and sustainable attitudes. These relational gestures suddenly seemed to have been integrated in the lives of many people during lockdown, positively affecting our connection with our local surroundings and green spaces.
In September 2020 myself and five dancers inhabited Sugarwell Hill for one week. We entered a process of individual and collective rituals of slowing down, being with, sensing ecology, dialoguing with trees and branches, of tactility and relationality. It culminated in a sharing where participants were invited to both witness and participate in a journey that reinvigorated our senses, our tactility and our sense of belonging.
(Photo: Vanessa Grasse)
Unfortunately Sugarwell Hill has been suffering from fly tipping for many years and has continued to suffer from it throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. It is not uncommon for me to come back home with massive bags of plastic rubbish after a walk or movement exploration.
(Photo: Vanessa Grasse)
Recently, I was exploring a writing and moving score, following a task I had been given, which asked me how I knew what season we were in, by noticing changes in the landscape, in the atmosphere, etc. The strongest thing that kept reminding me it was still winter was being able to notice all the rubbish on the ground. It was plastic season. Once the vegetation grows high in the spring, the rubbish is not so visible anymore. Plastic’s impermeability and uncompostability cannot be digested by my guts, my lungs, my skin, my brain, my nerves; their porous and organic matter do not comprehend it. Recently I have been finding it easier to deal with plastic pollution issues if supported by others and a community. If you live around Sugarwell Hill (Chapeltown, Scott Hall and Meanwood), it is possible to join voluntary clean up sessions and other ecological activities run by the city council (Sugarwell Hill Gang). Similar groups exist throughout the country.
This summer, I will be continuing the research started last year on Sugarwell Hill, working with four dancers and a land artist towards developing a site-specific piece. I hope the work will nurture more appreciation and care for this wonderful green habitat hidden amongst the urban landscape.
Somatic sensibility and exploration doesn’t always need to wait for a framed facilitated activity or a special allocated time. It can be integrated in our daily living; during a stroll or even whilst collecting rubbish. But perhaps it is easier said than done. Arriving, Landing, Absorbing, Relating, Being With are precious practices that one can engage with at any time.They can also support us during challenging and uncomfortable internal and external conflicts that we might dwell with throughout our eco-activist journeys. Alongside the development of creative, eco-somatic and ecological awareness, on a personal level, my project The Land We Are is allowing me to become more resilient, giving me tools and survival tactics I can use to deal with the challenges presented by the global climate crisis and the more immediate local ecological struggles.
The project is taking me on a journey of kinship with the land and the ecosystem, where creative processes can unfold. I let my facilitated processes and my choreography evolve from a symbiosis between creative and somatic explorations. The creative and play elements, like in our childhood, are great components for letting our curiosity become alive and allowing perceptual repatterning. The Land We Are research has brought up many questions, such as:
Can we experience ecology from a felt place? What type of experiences might favour an embodied cognition of ecology and of our entanglement with the natural world?
How could we challenge the perceived separation of human and nature from a felt place?
What types of embodied practices could offer an experience of ‘being nature’?
How can we have an embodied sense of ecology and ecosystems by accessing a felt experience of our own body’s ecosystem and complexity and relate it to the ecological complexity that surrounds us?
What types of creative and embodied practices could we experience, facilitate and offer to invite a shift in our anthropocentric centred experiences, without romanticising nature?
How do we relate to and coexist with non-human beings? Can we, in our moving practices, experience nature less as a vehicle and resource to serve us, to further discover ourselves and/or to heal ourselves, but rather more as a shared environment that nurtures relationality, coexistence, interdependence and ecological sustainability?
During Yorkshire Dance’s Encounters Festival this summer, I will share some practice from The Land We Are by offering Branching Dialogues, an audio guided workshop. In this workshop we explore the possibility of being in relationship, in reciprocity, in a place of curiosity, of playfulness and care with trees, with wood and various branching worlds. I offer somatic-improvisational movement explorations, focusing on awakening relationships between the different species of branching systems in the body and the wider environment. Here you can download a movement score I created for International Day of Forests, which might give you a little taste of the audio workshop.
I am interested in how dancers, somatic and movement practitioners, scientists, researchers, nature lovers and ecological leaders, can nurture and develop practices, researches and policies that foster a perception and way to act that doesn’t only speak of how valuable nature is to us humans, but how the whole functioning ecosystem is of crucial value to itself and of value to non-human communities. We need to engage in, develop and support practices and discourses that acknowledge humans as nature and as co-inhabitants, where we can work towards recovering and healing from the damaging nature-human dichotomy.
Nurturing embodied connection, empathy and love for an environment, or even moments of awe and contemplating beauty, are not about romanticising nature. These experiences help strengthen our bond, repare the loss and separation we have experienced by living in cities and ultimately nurture a sense of care that can support us when we need to act in other forms of activist stewardship. Ecological somatic and creative practices go hand to hand with practical pragmatic action such as tree planting, litter picking, protesting, demanding governmental change, environmental awareness and scientific research. They can balance and support one another. I don’t see a clear hierarchy between these different types of activities, they fulfill different purposes, they are all needed and hopefully they can be further intertwined.
The climate emergency can definitely be an overwhelming subject. It upsets me and it can often seize me into fight or flight mode. The longevity of motivation and energy needed to spring into both creative and activist practice reside, for me, in allowing those meaningful internal affective bonds with the more-than-human world to stay present, to be felt in the flesh, and for my ‘wild soul story’ to stay alive. Without these, my eco-creative-warrior would be short lived.
Refinding our earthly compass requires wanting and willing, but little effort. Survival strategies call me to tune with it on a daily basis. My earthly compass emerges when I touch a rock with closed eyes to let the two skins meet and let the minerals hydrate my bones. When I stand on the grass with bare feet and let the uneven soil traverse my oscillating verticality. When I let my eyes surf on the sky-algae branches. When I breathe in fresh air. When I drink water. When I eat food that comes from the soil.
Moments of affective experience and connectivity are there, ready for our attention to engage and let them emerge. These experiences can help seed and fuel a personal strong relationship with the natural world. A relationship that can be generous, resilient and long lasting and that sees beyond the human-centeredness. Our current times are definitely calling for a body-mind-soul shift, an overall paradigm shift. A shift that requires embracing and reclaiming ancient earthly knowledge and our evolutionary rights to coexist in an ecological and healthy planet. Creative eco-somatic practices can offer valuable maps to propel these shifts. They can revive our playful and curious selves to nurture old and new ‘wild soul stories’.
Reynolds Thompson, M. (2014). Reclaiming the Wild Soul: How Earth’s Landscapes Restore Us to Wholeness. White Cloud Press
Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Duke University Press