In 2019, we spoke to Allegra Searle-LeBel about an ambitious zero-g dance project she and her dance company, Giant Leap, were doing. Allegra followed up with us in late 2020 and we wanted to share our original interview along with what she's been doing recently!
The original interview:
When and how did you decide that you wanted to take on such an ambitious project as truly weightless dance?
My artistic collaborations around zero gravity dance and the climate crisis support each other.
I was 5 when I watched Halley’s Comet with my dad, and wanted to dance across the sky with her. That was the beginning. As I became a choreographer, I continually found myself drawn to dancing in unconventional settings. Zero gravity is the most unconventional setting I can imagine, and while I did dream of dancing in zero gravity and even trained, I didn’t have the right conceptual framework to justify such a demanding medium. Then, a few years ago, I began truly considering my responsibility to make art in the context of the climate crisis, including exploring the ways that space can inspire people to perceive global systems and move beyond limitations. I committed to working as a climate dancer, and realized that I could show that humans can dance in zero gravity as an embodied metaphor for evolution. We have the capacity to approach even the most fundamental, consequential situations with creativity. If we can dance without gravity, we can do anything. To limit the damage of the climate crisis, we have to evolve.
I keep this quote from the actress and screenwriter Brit Marling on hand for when I need to remind myself of the value of making art right now: “Excavating, teaching and celebrating the feminine through stories is, inside our climate emergency, a matter of human survival.”
Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel to space, is another of my heroes. Her life full of accomplishments has always impressed me for the range of critical thinking to empathic, creative engagement.
Buckminster Fuller’s daughter, Allegra Fuller-Snyder, is my namesake as well as one of my lifelong artistic guides. She taught me that dance is both universal language and individual expression, to celebrate passion over perfection, and to see dance in the larger context of history.
Allegra, you have a history of merging art with technology. What are the exciting ways this project will fuse technology with art aside from the parabolic flight?
One way is that we’re creating ways to dance with data instead of gravity. Using climate and GIS data as not just background or set elements but part of the choreography, influencing the moves. PerceptualAI is a startup that uses machine learning to create climate data projections, and we’re excited to work with them on visualizing data.
What are some of the challenges of creating a dance program for something as alien to most human experience as weightlessness?
A big challenge has been needing to start small. Baby steps. Human bodies are made to operate in gravity. Taking that constant away is like starting over from scratch, and movements like walking or jumping don’t directly translate. As a dancer, I generally feel that I’m an expert in movement, so going into developmental movement like this is both astonishingly fresh and requires ego death. Another challenge is that there isn’t language for many of the experiences that we have in zero gravity. To be able to communicate about it requires coming up with very specific descriptions, and even brand-new words.
You're undergoing multiple types of training for dancing in zero-G, from dive pools to aerial dance. What has been your biggest takeaway from training thus far?
I have been surprised at how much meditation is helpful. Mental preparation cannot be overdone when going into an environment that requires utmost sensitivity and split second responses. Another part of training is that I purposely put myself in disorienting situations - upside down, spinning, looking at screens sideways - in order to broaden my brain’s perception of what is normal, and to be able to adapt quickly to shifting points of reference.
Your gaps of weightlessness are pretty short per parabola (on average 20-30 seconds of weightlessness) -- how do you plan to make the most of your time? Do you plan to use the full parabolic arc in your production?
Yes, the full parabolic arcs will be used. The drama of increased Gs adds layers of possible expression such as the effort it takes to raise a limb or sit up, or the sense of really crashing down. The moves that will be done during each arc are mostly pre-planned and practiced, as is the reset time in between. Rehearsals include timing and mental preparation, getting into position, and allowing for unplanned variations. There will also be some allowance for improvisation on a few arcs, as the freedom to explore during unscripted moments is a crucial part of creative development.
You've previously stated that your overall goal is to be the first dance company to perform in outer space. What are the next steps after your parabolic dance performance? Perhaps the ISS or to NASA's forthcoming Gateway?
For now, I’m focusing on developing movement possibilities, working through technical questions, and training mentally and physically. I’m hoping to fly again in 2021, once it’s possible, which will give time for research and development, including more filming in zero gravity. As for making it all the way to outer space… I’d certainly welcome an invitation to Dear Moon!
Since then, the project shifted and is destined to become a short fiction film entitled Earthriser. When the project resumes, more will be able to be found @earthriser on Instagram. Allegra and her photographer Cole Rise had a piece in DIYDancer Issue 3: "In Pursuit of Weightlessness".
In the interim, Allegra had an artistic residency at Lookout Arts Quarry and developing and shooting on-the-ground research segments for Earthriser, " Let's Heal, 2020" was one of these.