Water Dance

As fire, drought, and the climate crisis threaten, SCU professors and students look to art to inspire others to action—and begin to dance, sing, draw and write of water.

Water Dance
The Merced River in morning. It was a walk along these banks that first inspired David Popalisky to dedicate a performance to water. The mission grew to include students and professors from multiple departments, most significantly Theatre and Dance, Art and Art History, and Music. It launched in fall 2021. / Image courtesy Mikhail Kalugin, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0.

After the razing heat and seemingly constant wildfires of California’s summers, the arrival of fall rains is a healing balm to the cracked soil. A multimedia dance performance recreated that feeling in Mayer Theater last fall, exploring both water and the effects of human activity on this precious resource.

The Water Project was seeded three years ago during a walk along the winding Merced River, says David Popalisky, associate professor of theater and dance. In those shallow depths lay the lifeline of Yosemite Valley, from rosy manzanitas twisting towards the sun to finicky marmots slinking through tree roots. As the river winds, it becomes increasingly shallow. As Popalisky recalls, that trending towards shallowness sparked in him an urgency to share the gospel of protecting this vital resource.

As a dancer and choreographer, the most obvious path of action for Popalisky was movement. Dance can carry a mysticism that does not compute literal meanings, he says. It is felt in the body, like a walk through the woods. Water shares this—its power or absence can be felt.

“We are very sensitive human beings to motion and other people moving,” Popalisky says. “This is the realm that dance works in. This is how we affect the audience.”

It was during another river walk—this time along the urban Guadalupe River with SCU choral director Scot Hanna-Weir—that the plans to express humans’ connections to water deepened. The idea that would become The Water Project grew to include other SCU faculty and students and gained financial backing on Kickstarter.

In addition to dance and song, lecturer Jeffrey Bracco ’89 in the theater department wrote the script about water distribution and justice performed by an actor. Included in the script was a line from environmental studies professor Iris Stewart-Frey: “Water is precious and water is limited.”

In a post-performance interview, Stewary-Frey reflected on the all-encompassing nature of this resource. “People are made of water,” she says. “It’s what we really depend on for life; everything we wear, everything we eat, everything we do is connected to water.”

Flood stage left

Water makes for a dynamic actor (its range includes both gentle seas and torrential rains). Popalisky endeavored to capture this dynamism in his choreography.

The first movement drew from the great Wisconsin lakes of his childhood. “We’d have the dancers diving and rolling to the floor and back up, just as water will swirl around a rock or a barrier, or it will crash on the shore,” Popalisky says.

“There’s one section in the middle that I really love, where it’s a very gentle, quiet, calm moment, like rain hitting a pond or a lake.”

Another movement, “Flood,” focuses on the destructive power of water that defied God’s covenant with Noah. Dancers fall upon each other, symbolizing lives lost and the crashing of waves as they reach upwards for hope.

Transcribing the unique dialogue of water into dance seems more relevant than ever, as drought again strikes the Santa Clara Valley. “By the fall, you couldn’t read the news without hearing a story of drought or floods,” Popalisky says. “And so it was even more critical to be aware and to take action.”

For Popalisky furthering his connection with water was a bonding experience with his collaborators, such as dancer Claire Long ’23, who recalled a childhood filled with splashing in puddles and jumping in waves while dancing.

Through the project, Long rethought her connection to water. “We’re dependent on it,” Long says. “But it’s also dependent on us in a way [with] what we end up doing with our lives and how we help support the development of water versus all the things that take away from water.”

The challenge was how to recreate that connection for an audience. “You have to process it in a way that challenges you to make something tangible to others and to move them in the same way,” Popalisky says. “I mean, I can’t put people in a waterfall, so how do I bring some essence of that through my artistic choices?”

Popalisky had dancers do a sequence of rotating movements emulating its crashing power. Where real water could not rush among the red theatre seats, choral director Hanna-Weir filled the theatre with piano and human voices that spoke of water.

The key of rain

The music in the movement called “Aqua Sapientiae “drew from Hanna-Weir’s experience growing up in North Carolina performing in praise bands. It intermixes Gregorian chants with words from water bottle labels to ridicule and emphasize our reliance on single-use plastics.

In another section, he produced the sense of a rainstorm, from a soft drizzle to rumbling thunder, using electronic elements and rhythmic ostinatos. In the flood movement, to create a more immersive feeling, Hanna-Weir took samples from newscasts to create a “flood” of stories.

He used plucked pizzicato strings and synthesized bass to create a repetitive baseline to highlight the slow movement of water through the Earth in the Wells movement. The combination of pizzicato and bass created a thick and slow feeling contrasted by light plinky piano strings signifying the drawing of water.

Just as dance connects deeply to our right brains and kinetic sense, Hanna-Weir says he chose choir music as the main motif for its intimacy. “I think there’s a connection of empathy there that can feel like, ‘Oh, that’s something I can relate to,’” Hanna-Weir says. “So I think it [choir] can be used really effectively, to open people up to that emotional experience of ‘What does water feel like?’ [and] ‘What is that memory of water?’”

Paint with light

Coded to sync up with the music were animations created by Lee and Seymour Graff Professor Kathy Aoki Lee, along with senior lecturer and light designer Derek Duarte to further guide the audience along their own river walk.

Short notes of piano would sync up with images of raindrops and more abstract pieces of art faded in and out to the tune of the choir. The work also used projections, including animations of windmills and abstract depictions of wells and waves. For animations Aoki depicted real-world water issues in local communities.

Thomas Hill's painting of Bridal Veil Falls and the Merced River
People have made art from water forever. Thomas Hill painted Yosemite in the 1850s. Here is his painting of Bridal Veil Falls and the Merced River, which itself inspired SCU’s own water art—The Water Project. / Image courtesy The White House Historical Association (White House Collection).

“Animation, the color, the shape, and how fast or slow those visuals are in the background can really add to what the dancers are saying with their bodies,” Aoki says.

Every aspect of the performance has culminated into a celebration of water. The audience has been transported both visually and audibly to the world of water. Then just like the flick of a switch, the dancers leave, the music quiets, the animations fade to white, and all that’s left are the words “Water is precious, and water is limited.”


Those words and others flashed on the screen throughout the piece were penned by Stewart-Frey, who studies water’s limitless capabilities and the intricate relationship water holds with humans and climate change.

Stewart-Frey stresses that water is something that connects us all globally. Humans depend on it and are made of it. Water is precious, and it is the lifeblood of all living things on Earth, she says.

“We need to educate ourselves about the water situation and water for what it is,” Stewart-Frey says. “Traditional cultures and truth are showing [we have] revered water and been able to treat water in a way that it is sustainably used for hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of years.”

But, she says, we’ve begun to take water for granted, and we can’t. Living in one of the wealthiest places in the world, the Bay Area, most open the tap to have fresh, clean water. However, Stewart-Frey explains that an hour and a half or two-hour drive south would spell a completely different situation. Tap water could be contaminated or not even available. Laws governing water access and distribution drive this inequity. Human activity also causes climate change and pollution that will change the nature of water.

Events like The Water Project highlight people’s connections with water and deepen the experience. These pave the path toward water justice, increasing people’s thinking and acting on the issue.

“Our responsibility is actually to become moral beings,” Stewart-Frey says. “And in that respect, to really ask ourselves are we doing our best and whatever it is that we can be doing?”

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