Thinking green: Chautauqua Dance Salon debuts interpretive, environmental conservation-themed pieces

Peter Zay | Provided Photo

Once upon a time, there was a woman who lived in a tree. She made her home high in the leafy canopy for two years, refusing to leave its branches out of fear that the tree would be cut down.

This story is no fairytale. It is the true story of Julia “Butterfly” Hill, an environmental activist who lived in a California Redwood tree to save it from being cut down for lumber.

It is also the story which served as creative inspiration for choreographer Sasha Janes’ dance, “Tree Hugger,” one of six ballet pieces that will be performed tonight at the annual Chautauqua Dance Salon at 8:15 p.m. tonight in the Amphitheater. 

The salon, this year themed “Green Pieces,” features dances that comment on green issues such as the environment, conservation, waste and yes, tree hugging.

“Tree Hugger” is the fourth dance in the evening’s set, a soft-shoe ballet choreographed to a Maurice Ravel composition. It features two male dancers and one female dancer, with the men symbolizing the tree and the woman portraying the environmentalist.

“We see this lady at the beginning of the ballet, and she runs and jumps into the tree,” Janes said. “Then, for the entirety of the ballet she doesn’t touch the floor.”

The piece requires great strength from dancers Pete Walker and Joshua Hall, who must engage in a considerable number of lifts. The female dancer, Anna Gerberich, spends roughly six minutes hovering over the stage without ever touching a foot to the ground, ghosting the story of the woman in the tree.

Higher Consciousness

“Higher Consciousness” is the opening performance of the salon, a piece that introduces the evening’s theme and is choreographed en pointe by Mark Diamond, associate artistic director of Chautauqua Dance. Diamond said this dance is meant to establish a “state of mind.”

It begins with a 1960s beatnik feel, as dancer Lucas Bilbro plays the bongos and talks aloud about the environment. Amid the verbal commentary, performers dance to the bongo beat and funnel their emotions through body movements — physically illustrating a response to the degradation of habitat. Halfway through the piece, the lively notes of a jazz piano break through the drums, and dancer David Morse pounds out an improvisational melody on the ivory keys.

“This piece is a little bit of a protest, a commentary piece,” Diamond said.

“Higher Consciousness” is thus meant to open both the show and the minds of audience members, inviting them to engage in environmental dialogue for the duration of the recital.

Time is of the Essence
(Save the World)

Following “Higher Consciousness” is the dance “Time is of the Essence (Save the World),” a pas de deux choreographed by Diamond and featuring dancers Hall and Chelsea Dumas. This work, which is performed en pointe and set to music by Frederic Chopin, is an intense portrayal of a woman who is stressed and concerned about the environment and the man who is trying to support her.

“It’s about an environmental activist couple,” Diamond said. “They are lobbying, writing letters — trying to get people to be aware.”

Kinetic Energy

“Kinetic Energy” is the third piece of the evening and the first ballet by choreographer Janes, associate artistic director for the Charlotte Ballet. Also performed en pointe, the dance is grounded in a fundamental concept of energy and its sources. Portraying a sort of alternative source, dancers exhibit both a generation and a re-creation of energy using only their bodies. The piece is abstract but fun, Diamond said.

“Kinetic Energy” is also the second piece of the salon to capitalize upon the improvisational piano talents of Morse. According to Janes, the spontaneity and chaos of this music is key to understanding the dance.

“There’s no written music,” Janes said. “If you listen carefully, [Morse] puts in little things. One time he put the French national anthem in there. Another time ‘If I Only Had a Brain’ from The ‘Wizard of Oz’…you have to listen carefully to what he’s playing, because it’s very inspired.”

But perhaps the most unique aspect of the dance’s music is its rhythm, which is thumped out by Janes running on a treadmill. The treadmill serves as a metronome for the piece, escalating in tempo as the dancers increase their speed, the pianist plays faster, and the lights shine brighter.

“The sound of the footsteps on the treadmill are what give the dance its underlying sense of time,” Janes said.

As for why Janes will personally be starring on the treadmill, he explained that he didn’t want the dancers to burn out with excessive running when they have so many other rehearsals, classes, and dances to undertake. 

“Besides,” he said, “it’s good for me to get fit.”


The salon’s fifth dance is a collaboration between Diamond and Janes titled “Environment.” It is the only dance of the evening that features brand-new choreography — the other dances are restaged, now-revived works that were performed in both Chautauqua and Charlotte several years ago.

Diamond calls “Environment” a “work in progress.” He said that it is a commissioned piece by Kay H. Logan, which will be performed in its entirety in July for the Dance Innovations program. For now, however, the audience will just be treated to excerpts of the dance.

“We’re just sort of reacting to the music,” Diamond said of the dance’s style. “We’re representing different environments. They could be psychological. They could be geological. They could be a kind of mood that’s created.”

The soft-shoe ballet, which is intended to be very abstract, is set to “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge” by Benjamin Britten.


The final piece of the Chautauqua Dance Salon is a Diamond ballet performance called “Recycling.” 

The dance is deconstructed into two sections. The first section, which Diamond dubbed “Homeless,” plays with the old adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It focuses on a homeless woman who is able to see the value in things the world deems worthless.

“This woman values every little thing she finds on the ground,” Diamond said. “It’s an extreme where everybody else throws things away, but this woman finds them, and to her, they’re precious.”

From there, the dance merges into its second section, a sort of fashion runway which is boosted along by a techno beat. The techno music is the creation of Diamond himself, who mixed the tune specifically for the dance.

But Diamond wasn’t the only one creating original art for this piece. He also recruited the talents of his daughter, Erika Diamond, a visual artist who works in Chautauqua. When “Recycling” was originally performed — roughly five years ago, according to Diamond — Erika designed all of the costumes out of recycled trash.

“One costume is made out of old CDs that were thrown away; another is made out of garbage bags,” Diamond said.

His daughter has since repaired the costumes, fixing old problems and making some updated changes to keep them looking fresh. Although they are made out of reused trash, Diamond maintains that they will look like anything but garbage onstage.

“From a distance they should look like pretty, interesting costumes,” he said.

A Green Theme

With limited time to prepare for a show so early in the season, the dance sector of the Chautauqua community has been crackling with vibrant energy and commotion. Despite jam-packed schedules, however, the dancers are looking forward to the first performance of the year — not only for fine dancing, but for the message behind the movement as well.

“The environment is a big topic of the time,” Diamond said of why he chose the theme. “I thought it would be natural to do something that is so much in everyone’s minds, that everybody is talking about.”