The third chapter in The Unreliable Bestiary
My life-long project, The Unreliable Bestiary, is an ark of stories about animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit. The Bestiary will present a performance for each letter of the alphabet – the letter representing an endangered species. In 2009 MONKEY opened on Darwin’s 200th birthday. We made MONKEY for a black-box theater, but other performances will take place in specific sites, each unique setting reflecting aspects of our faltering bonds with the natural world. ELEPHANT, the project’s second chapter, premiered in 2010 at the Univ. of Illinois Stock Pavilion, a cavernous arena chosen for its associations with 4-H Clubs, state fairs, and Roman amphitheatre battles. Supported by Creative Capital, the massively-scaled ELEPHANT featured video projected on two 90-foot long screens, music, dance, an enormous elephant puppet and a sizable cast/crew. The event connected scientific and artistic communities with interests in the environment, human/animal behavior, ethics, theater, film, dance, spoken-word and storytelling. Standing-room-only crowds saw the Urbana performances of ELEPHANT with hundreds of others turned away. A smaller version of the piece was presented in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
WOLF is next in The Bestiary. The wolf is the planet’s most widely distributed land mammal and one of the most adaptable. Sheep-killer to ranchers, powerful medicine to Native Americans, devil incarnate to medieval European farmers, spirit animal to New Age seekers – the wolf’s spot at the top of the food chain elicits strong reactions. So strong that wolves in the U.S. were eradicated in the 19th and 20th centuries by a systematic poisoning campaign waged by the federal government. The loss of the top predator effected the entire ecosystem, trickling all the way down to the microbes in the rivers. In 1995 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. The wolf restoration project has stirred up the old stories and their symbols – The Wolf, The Lamb, The Cowboy, The Wild West – the pot bubbles with archetypes. Wolf as myth and wolf as living being are two very different creatures.
Research for WOLF started in Yellowstone. I sat in a small bus on the first morning of a wolf management workshop. New snow blanketed the Lamar Valley. All eyes are peeled, scanning for dark movement on the white land. The bus rounds a bend to find a knot of cars at the side of the road – a “wolf jam” – giant telephoto lenses on tripods, men and women in fleece and down, nursing thermoses of coffee. We learn that there is a kill across the river, 100 yards from where we stand. The alpha pair of the Lamar Valley pack took the deer down ten minutes before we arrived. The deer was pregnant. The male wolf ate the fetus. The female wolf fords the river, shaking herself like a golden retriever just out of a lake. Someone hisses, “It’s alive!” The “kill” is still breathing. The deer lifts its head off the ground only to see the two wolves trotting towards it. The wolves feed. They pull out viscera. They tear off muscle. Their faces are covered in blood. A grizzly bear comes out of the brush. He charges the wolves off their meal. The bear eats the deer. A week later I ate dinner with our suburban East Central Illinois neighbor – a veterinarian. I told her about this Yellowstone encounter. The vet said, “Didn’t you want to intervene?” I said, “Why?” She said, “When animals are killing each other, I want to stop them.”
WOLF sits on its haunches between these two dinner tables, in the gap between Wild and Domestic. The Fall 2013 interdisciplinary WOLF performance will take place in Allerton, a wooded park near the Monticello, IL. WOLF will reunite the ELEPHANT team: choreographer Jennifer Allen, software designer Damon Loren Baker, lighting designer Valerie Oliveiro, and composer Chris Peck. The award-winning, international credits peppering the careers of these wonderful artists include work featured in the Venice Biennale, the Luminato Festival, The Kitchen and collaborations with John Jasperse, Donna Uchizono, and Jennifer Monson amongst many others.
By 2050 climate change and our exploding population will push half the species on the planet into extinction. The lions and tigers and bears of our ancient stories will be long gone. Central to our myths, embedded in our language, rooted in our imaginations – what will we do when our dreams disappear? My hope is that the poetics, sounds, images and stories of WOLF and other immersive Unreliable Bestiary events will start to unpack the complexities of our precarious moment in natural history. I want the work to inspire us to change the way we live.