Art and the performing arts are, at their basic level, a means of creating community and expressing our understanding of the world and ourselves. They have been interwoven with our natural world since human beings evolved to make art – our unique language of creativity that has incredible power.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, evidence for both visual arts and performing arts dates to roughly 40,000 years ago, although, quite unexpectedly, in separate parts of the world. The Stone Age cave paintings of Sulawesi in Indonesia and the bone-carved flutes found in Europe emerged concurrently. Both early artifacts record humans’ reflection in and use of nature. Nature inspired our artistic abilities, encouraging our creative minds to flourish in painting, sculpture, music and dance. Humans used art to honor animals, sacred places and celestial events. We then applied our talents to ceremony and ritual, inextricably weaving our self-expression to nature and to the heavens.
Not much has changed for many artists who still draw inspiration from nature and use natural themes and materials to communicate their ideas and impressions of our world. Today, the National Park Service includes an artists-in-residence program, encouraging the continuation of humanity’s vital artistic interaction with the natural world. From Isadora Duncan’s early modern dance work in nature to Asadata Dafora’s 1932 landmark Awassa Astrige/Ostrich dance that introduced traditional African nature dances to American audiences, choreographers have drawn on natural phenomena to explore dimensions of the human experience. Nature herself provided humans with a built-in instrument, the voice, which scientists argue was our first experiment with music-making some 530,000 years ago.
But, over the past few thousand years, humanity’s relationship to nature drastically changed our environment and our way of thinking about it. Art is how we see life, so as growing concerns over clean water, loss of species, climate change, natural resources and overdevelopment affect our future, many artists responded by offering art and the performing arts as part of global discussions on such concerns.
In 2008, artists and scientists gathered in Europe and Asia as part of the Connect2Culture Initiative to begin talks about the intersections of art and sustainability and how the arts and performing arts can create a new way of thinking about the natural world. Around the United States, universities are offering classes in arts and the environment, and new fields of study—such as dance ecology and music ecology—specifically deal with bodies and sounds as they relate to nature. Students of these artistic-ecological meldings produce exquisite examinations of movement and sound that delight audiences and uphold humanity’s artistic origins.
Our own backyard is chock-full of people unearthing the primal visceral power of art and nature to connect us to each other, ourselves and our world. In November 2014, St. Petersburg hosted Blue Ocean, a film festival and conservation summit, and the Springs Eternal Project in Gainesville creates partnerships between advocates, artists, scientists and researchers to inspire Floridians to revere and protect our fragile springs water systems. Kuumba Drummers and Dancers, Tampa’s only African dance ensemble, continues Dafora’s work in preserving traditional folkloric African dances used to communicate between performers, audience and aspects of nature.
Attendant to the performing arts’ ability to unite with science to help propel humanity into new perspectives is the basic, fundamental power of nature’s own artistry to heal the human heart and mind. In Florida, we are privileged to experience the choreography of flight in a flock of white ibis by doing nothing more than heading to the nearest body of water. We can go further in the Florida wilderness to witness the terrific symphony of bull alligators bellowing during mating season. In our backyards, we have the great belching chorus of frogs and toads that so enriches the dramatics of a sky full of stars.
We, too, flock to the beaches, congregate on riverbanks and witness, every year, a great migration of human beings to the Sunshine State. Why? Because, deep within us, lies our undeniable connection to the beat of life. We participate in the art of nature whether we know it or not, and we draw together in the many expressions of our artistic celebration of living on this earth. There are tracings of many human hands surrounding a prehistoric deer on a cave wall in Sulawesi to prove it.