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Friday, November 21, 2014

Birds With Skymirrors—Climate Change Hits Home

by David Hsieh

Birds With Skymirrors. Photo: Jack Vartoogian

For people concerned about climate change, good news doesn't come often. (Certainly not with the increasingly violent weather patterns and the dire predictions of species going extinct!) But last week’s agreement between the US and China to limit future greenhouse gas emissions—with quantifiable goals—is certifiably good news.

It is fortuitous that on the heels of this historical agreement, BAM is presenting a show that grows out of a very tangible worry about global warming from an artist who knows first-hand its devastating effect.

Birds with Skymirrors, a haunting reflection on our relationship with the world in a time of climate change, is created by Samoan director and choreographer Lemi Ponifasio. Performed by his New Zealand-based company, MAU, whose members, like Ponifasio, mostly originate from island nations scattered around the southern Pacific Ocean.

Unlike most of us, for whom global warming is, perhaps, an ethical standing, inconvenience, or worst-case scenario, for them—part of the five percent of the world population comprising the 44 members of the Alliance of Small Island States—climate change is destroying their homes. Right now.

Birds With Skymirrors. Photo: Jack Vartoogian
According to the most recent Assessment Report issued by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over much of the 20th century, the world's sea level rose at a rate between 1.3 and 1.7 mm per year. Since 1993, that rate has increased to between 2.8 and 3.6 mm each year. Many of these small islands will be underwater by the end of the 21st century.

“Most of the company comes from the islands of the Pacific, especially Kiribati,” Ponifasio said while on rehearsal break in the Howard Gilman Opera House, where Birds With Skymirrors runs through November 22. “In these islands, climate change is real. It’s not something that’s going to happen in the future. Before, we hardly experienced cyclones. Nowadays, we have cyclone seasons. Now, we have king waves. And, when the waters come in, sometimes they don't leave.”

Boys at play on Kiribati.
Ponifasio said people's lives have already been changed by the weather and sea level. “They can’t plant food like they used to. They can’t build houses like they used to. So the traditional life cycles have changed. And the social order has changed. So climate change is not just climate change—it’s fundamental human change and habitat change.”

Ponifasio created Birds with Skymirrors because he wanted to reflect on the lives of the people he worked with. He imagined the work as a "karanga" ("summoning," an element of cultural protocol of the New Zealand Māori people), a genealogical prayer, a ceremony—a last dance on earth.

The UN report also estimates that up to 187 million people globally could be permanently displaced by 2100. And, if Hurricane Sandy has taught us anything, no one living in coastal areas in any part of the world should think they’re safe! If nothing is to be done, a lot more more people will be thinking about their last dance. Let’s hope the US-China agreement is a start, not an end.

Birds With Skymirrors runs through Saturday, Nov 22 in the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House.

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