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Sea Star Dance: Melding Music with Nature

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GPS Coordinates to Lane Community College: 44.01007, -123.03284

One spring day in 2014, Matt Svoboda took his four-year-old son to Cannon Beach to explore the tide pools. Having grown up in Oregon, Matt was very familiar with the coast and the various types of life which could be found along its rocky headlands or along the beaches. But on that particular day, one species was noticeably absent — sea stars.

What Matt discovered from the rangers and naturalists working near the tide pools was that the sea star population up and down the west coast had been ravaged by sea star wasting disease. The plague caused the bodies of these echinoderms to fragment and dissolve, resulting in a prolonged and gruesome death. Similar die-offs had occurred in the early and mid-1970s but were not as prolonged or destructive as the current one, which began in 2013 and reached its height in 2015. Even after years of study, scientists still do not fully understand what causes these plagues, although there is increasing evidence that they are connected to rising ocean temperatures.

“This disease and how it affected these animals was really disturbing to me,” Matt recalled. “Even weeks later it was still on the back burner of my mind. It just wasn’t something I could shake.”

Soon after his experience on Cannon Beach, Matt was approached by Sarah Nemecek, a dance professor and his colleague at Lane Community College in Eugene. Sarah and Matt had collaborated previously as choreographer and composer and we’re interested in doing more work together. As the choral director at the school, Sarah wanted Matt’s help in producing a musical piece that dealt with the environment of Lane County and Oregon in general. Matt suggested a composition about sea star wasting — but not without some reservations. After all, creating a musical piece about the loss of a species could upset, rather than engage, the audience.

“Then Sarah said something to me that clicked,” Matt recalled of their conversations. “She said maybe your piece is about loss? Maybe your piece is about something that’s missing from the environment? I liked that idea and it seemed to have the potential to be very powerful.”

Matt composed the music using only five notes which symbolically reflected the five limbs typically found on species like ochre stars. As the composition progresses, the number of notes used is successively reduced until the audience is left in silence. Sarah and her dancers further enhanced the theme of decay and loss through their choreography with dancers leaving the stage one at a time until only one dancer remains, collapsed and unmoving.

To expand the reach and impact of the Sea Star Dance, Matt and Sarah called on Ian Coronado, the college’s Dean of Academic Technology, to create a music video. Ian and his technical director mounted a camera above the stage so they could capture the dance from a unique point of view. Using a special effect he created with a multimedia kit, Ian later added a white blur to some of the dancer’s movements.

“I wanted to represent Matt’s idea of decay in a very visual way,” explained Ian. “To do that, I needed to prolong some of the dancers’ movements on the video. We tried not to be too literal about it, the effect we came up with showed movement that was no longer there by leaving this ghostly trail behind them.”

When the dance finally premiered, the team was delighted with the reaction, which seemed to engage the audience both intellectually and emotionally.

“All the feedback I remember hearing about the dance is just how powerful it was. People wanted to know more about sea star wasting disease. They were concerned what was happening,” said Ian. “I think it really allowed the audience to feel the loss of these animals.”

So will the Lane Community College team continue to address conservation issues through dance and music? Matt, Sarah and Ian all said it was possible, based largely on the positive feedback they received from the Sea Star collaboration.

“This project really provoked people to take an interest in sea star wasting disease and to think about the beauty and fragility of the world around us,” said Sarah. “I think it also represents Lane Community College well. We’re a college program that has an emphasis on diversity and sustainability, so this really reflected our vision for both the school and this community.”

You can see the entire Sea Star Dance video on the righthand sidebar.

Related Features: Youth Activities: Tide Pooling | Youth Activities: Climate Change Action

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Watch the Complete Seastar Wasting Disease Dance

This video is courtesy of the music and dance programs at Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon. Used with permission.