Bridging art to the existential threat of atmospheric carbon overload: Allegra Searle-LeBel (US)

Allegra Searle-LeBel is an American zero gravity dance choreographer, dancer, and performance artist. She reflects, among other things, on what are her ways to reduce her environmental footprint, have her concerns about the environment changed during the years, and why eco-sensitive art is needed. 

Allegra Searle-LeBel. Photo: Allegra Searle-LeBel

Allegra, how do you define yourself? 

I am an artist, and performance is my foremost medium. I work with dance, theater, film, sculpture, conceptually, and apply other creative processes and tools if a project requires branching out. This includes learning new technologies and engaging with activism for human rights, social justice, and the climate crisis. Currently, bridging art to the existential threat of atmospheric carbon overload, I’ve taken on the role of a climate dancer.

What is vegetarianism and veganism for you? 

I began eating vegetarian when I was 12, because it was a straightforward way I could tread more lightly on our planet. I was feeling very attuned to animals and plant life, thinking about the intelligence and pain of animals and meat started tasting like suffering. While vegetarian has been my baseline eating pattern, I have been omnivorous at times, even appreciating meals of local, well-cared for animals, and I’ve also eaten vegan very very happily. When I found out I could make my own vegan butter and cheeses everything changed! I simply love how my body feels when I’m not eating dairy.

What is feminism for you? 

I was raised feminist, thanks fam! So that provided a foundation of believing in gender equality, but it also was at times more of a belief in an ideal rather than an experience. My own internalized gender oppression is substantial and requires much compassion, debunking and resistance. This may be counterintuitive, but feminism upholds my values when it moves beyond gender. I see it as one of the many vista points for taking a hard look at where unfairness exists and what kinds of growth and advocacy are most needed. It’s not feminism if it’s not intersectional.

What are your ways to reduce your environmental footprint?

One of my favorites as an artist is to repurpose materials. 

I used to fly a lot. In 2018 it became clear to me I needed to greatly reduce my flying because that was one of the ways I would most reduce my personal carbon use. I began to get very stringent about which flights were absolutely necessary, and why. I stopped using credit cards that give miles as rewards. It was kind of like quitting smoking; I really had to change my routines and my emotions. I’m pretty sure that one day very soon we’re going to look back at frequent flyers as super selfish jerks, and I had to figure out how to forgive myself for my own participation. 

While personal lifestyle changes make me feel more aligned with my values, I also believe that larger scale changes come from partnership — holding business and government accountable for bad choices while incentivizing positive choices through public pressure. I’ve been really impressed with some of the shifts that are coming out of indigenous-led campaigns, such as major banks stopping funding of oil exploration projects. And I’m really hoping that some renewable energy planes that have a reasonable production lifecycle get made soon!

Photo: Michal Lahav

Have your concerns about the environment changed during the years? 

Yes and no. In kindergarten I reported to my class on the slaughter of elephants for ivory, and the 2019 film Anthropocene told a similar story. I remember reading children’s books in the 1990s about How to Save the Earth, and feeling a sense of dread and bewilderment at the callous greed and short-sightedness that was leading to conditions like acid rain. There’s a photo of a stone statue of the Virgin Mary melted and pocked from acid rain that is burned into my memory — what a metaphor for humans destroying ourselves. And current books are even more dire. 

A major change is my trust of authority. For many years, even with the dire predictions, I trusted that people in charge would eventually become self-interested enough to figure out the solutions and then implement them, and so it would be ok if most of us focused on other things. Now, I can’t sit back and wait. Even if we fail to prevent the worst warming outcomes, I am certain it is better to participate fully in working towards ecological health, to love the earth and each other the best we can, and to acknowledge we will survive together or not at all.

What does zero gravity dance mean? 

Zero gravity dance literally means that I create dance without the pull of gravity. So far, I have been doing this in parabolic flight, similar to astronaut preparation for going to space. My training on the ground includes a lot of time in swimming pools, sensory deprivation flotation tanks, aerial dance rigs, indoor skydiving, and trampolines. I have done a lot of dancing in unconventional spaces, but creating dance without gravity is the most significant choreographic challenge I have ever taken on. Our bodies were made for gravity. Zero gravity dance requires developing new ways of perceiving our bodies and executing movement. It is simultaneously the most subtle and the most dramatic environment I’ve ever been in, and demands complete attention. My goal is for viewers of zero gravity dance to feel evolution in their bones — if humans can dance without gravity, we can solve ANYTHING.

What are your main interests in performance and dance? Also, why do you think that eco-sensitive art is needed?

Eco-sensitive art is needed to address the climate crisis. There are new stories that I feel compelled to tell and to explore creatively — witnessing mass extinction, increasing intensity of weather patterns, loss of wildlands to profit and human expansion, requirements to solve global scale problems, rising seas, quiet heroes who are living more connected to their ecosystems, shoreline communities preparing to become climate refugees… We are not yet fully equipped culturally to process the devastation that we’re creating and living through, and artists can help with that. We can open doors to reality that many people keep closed, and my hope is these small openings let us move past denial and despair and into action. 

Let’s talk about your video Let’s Heal, 2020. What do you want your audience to gain, feel and/or do as a result of watching the video? [To watch the video, go below — D the Vegan Feminist]

The hope is that people watching will be able to feel the forest, maybe it will feel like a breath of fresh air. So many people are shut up inside right now, unable to travel, and needing a momentary reprieve, change of scenery. And this YEAR. There is much to grieve from 2020, including tremendous devastation of the redwood forests from the fires in California. I’ve had many Californians tell me that this video let them feel the pain of that fresh loss in a helpful way. So it’s a combination of making room for grief and for freedom.

The director, Scott Kirschenbaum, is dedicated to biomimicry with the camera. He is brilliant at finding movements and angles and timing to draw in the audience to really feel they are in the forest. While we’re filming it becomes a dance between the camera, the forest, and myself, and we hope our rhythm carries through the screen into the viewer.

You have said: “There’s still time to heal.” How much time do we have? What are the main ways to recover? 

Fundamentally, I would say that we can’t recover. What we have is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and our collective suffering and grow into less human-centric ways of approaching the world, less consumerist and more considerate. Drawdown is the book I would recommend to anyone looking for “what can I do” type answers around the climate crisis. Now, in America, we need a Green New Deal. Around the world we need environmental justice, rewilding, investment in renewable energy sources, a stop to carbon and methane emissions, and creative storytellers to inspire those processes.

What feminists, creative activists, dancers, etc would you say have influenced you the most, and why?

Germaine Acogny, performer and founder of Acogny Technique, for her movement created in conversation with and reverence for the natural world.

Allegra Fuller-Snyder, founder of the World Arts and Cultures program and UCLA [University of California—Los Angeles — D the Vegan Feminist] and my namesake, who taught me that dance is not just for the youthful body but can be a lifelong gift.

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to go to space (among many other accomplishments), has always impressed me for her range of critical thinking to empathic, creative engagement.

Bill T. Jones, for his mastery of non-narrative storytelling and personal rawness.

Bill Irwin, for his marriage of physicality, humor, and precise language.

Audrey Lorde, for the beauty of truth and layers.

Jane Fonda, for using her social position, privilege, and beauty to gather attention for the most pressing issues of our time. 

James Baldwin, for loving himself and America so hard.

Emma Klein, my long-time collaborator, for standing up against injustices large and small, using her loud voice, and always providing unflinching feedback.

Emma Goldman, for proudly loving who she loved and dancing into revolution.

Maya Portugal for putting her body on the line to protect old-growth redwood.

What’s next up for you?

More dance films, in more beautiful places! I’m also VERY excited to see the ways that live performance blossoms once we’re able to be in person again.

Get inspired!



video “Let’s Heal, 2020”: