The Movement of Birds
As an improvisational dancer, Jennifer Monson '83 feels most comfortable when she is in motion. Musing that the same might be true of migrating animals, she developed Bird Brain: A Navigational Dance Project, a multi-year exploration of the ways in which animals-and humans-navigate their environments. In 2006 her innovative choreography earned her the most prestigious honor in dance, the "Bessie." Appropriately enough, the award is named for longtime Sarah Lawrence faculty member Bessie Schönberg, who was a seminal figure in modern dance.
Beginning in 1999, Monson and her dancers followed the migration of gray whales, ospreys, ducks, and geese for eight to ten weeks, performing at parks that corresponded with the animals' natural rest stops. The dances were based on Monson's extensive research into how animals use stars, light, landmarks, and weather patterns to navigate.
Bird Brain educated the public about migration, conservation, and "how we orient ourselves in relation to ideas of nature and environment," Monson said. The audiences of park-goers were often unfamiliar with experimental dance, so a brief workshop before the performance helped them to tune into their own navigational senses. "The first thing I always did was ask people to close their eyes and face north."
Though Monson began her dance studies at Sarah Lawrence after Schönberg retired, she did study with her at workshops outside of school. "Bessie had an amazing way of balancing her directness with an understanding of individual idiosyncrasies. Being in a room with her gave me confidence about my own value as a dance maker," said Monson.