thesalting: thank you Michael for taking time for us. we are excited to highlight the beautiful work you have been doing. please tell us about 'site-specific dances'
michael specner phillips: site-specific dances is an evolving experiment at the intersection of dance, site and community that aims to bring awareness to environmental and social issues using the language of dance. our artistic outputs are film, photography, live performance, and research. I created the company with my husband, Dino Kiratzidis-an architect, and our friend, Emma Kazatyan- a documentary filmmaker and photographer. we commission various young composers like polina nazaykinskaya and darian thomas for our scores.
ts: how did this general idea come about? and what intrigues you most about the theater of nature? combining landscape, ecology, dance and the human form?
msp: during the summer of 2020, I was commissioned by the traverse city dance project to make a dance film. white we were in northern michigan, Dino and I would sit around a fire in the evenings and philosophize on what we were creating and where it would fit in. we began to think of how dance could merge with science to bring attention to environmental issues. in researching site-specificity (in both the land art movement as well as post-modern experiments in dance), we began to realize that these conversations seemed far from over. new technologies like drones, go-pro's and editing software in addition to a renewed awareness of critical issues facing the planet provided the impetus for this new chapter. it felt as if I could invite a viewer to ee themselves in a landscape, when it is inhabited by dancers. can someone see themselves as part of the problem as well as part of the solution by viewing the scale of a human body against these enormous landscapes? it began as a project responding to the limitations imposed by covid- but has grown into something much more ambitious.
ts: who photographs and films your work?
msp: myself and emma do all of the filming and photography associated with site-specific dances, although we brought on an additional drone operator for megafloral in california. dino bought me a drone for my birthday in 2020, and that's when I began to choreograph using the drone nd explore the landscape as a protagonist and not merely the backdrop.
ts: who inspires you?
msp: my father. a truly self-made man from humble beginnings in the suburbs of Detroit: who remains loving, humble, adventurous, absolutely hilarious, brilliant but teachable, generous, empathetic...the list goes on and on. growing up, I never thought I would be so close to the man who was pretty damn strict. he is my best friend, confidante, cheerleader, mentor and role model. I am incredibly blessed in this area.
ts: what inspires you?
msp: I am inspired by so many things: movement in all its forms, both human and non human. the amazing systems of the natural world and it's ever-changing dynamics, you realize that it really is a special effects machine!
architecture inspires me. infrastructure, scientists, landscape painting (particularly romantic landscape paintings of Frederic church, that showed off the sublime qualities of nature, much like we aim to do)
lastly, nyc, people watching is incredibly inspiring. you can see people in fights, involve, in pain, lost and confused, celebrating, moving against the grain or with the crowd, dance is communication without words, and New York is a place where you can constantly observe body language, and that is vital for a choreographer.
ts: 3 favorite movies?
3. a life on our planet, david attenborough 2020. actually, everything by david attenborough.
4. gotta throw in white christmas
ts: do you have a favorite choreographer? if so, please share.
msp: after a lifetime of dance, it's impossible to choose just one.
Pina bausch. my greatest inspiration. she created entire worlds on stage that dancers inhabit. in her 'rite of spring', she brought the earth inside the theater. that work changed me forever as an artist. every time I think of it, I feel inspired to see dancers interact with the elements of nature.
Robert Battle. his work is physical, musical and raw. when performing his work, I always feel like I could tap into the fact that humans are animals. I also watched his works being performed by dancers of many different levels - the stamp of a talented choreographer that is a master of the true art of choreography. they don't have to rely on exclusively on elite dancers to create their vision.
Merce Cunningham. his legendary artistic collaborations with artists like Rauschenberg, johns, Warhol and his execution of the possibilities for movement vocabulary are epic. his lifelong collaboration with his partner, John cage, in life and in art, is something I never knew I wanted until I met Dino - growing as artists and as men who love one another.
ts: do you cast your dancers within each region? site? state?
msp: yes. I believe in 'site-specific casting' and community engagement for each project I work on. with some locations being deep into a wilderness area, we have to source dancers from the closest proximity, but seem to always succeed. this allows the work to remain 'of it's place', but also reduces the carbon footprint of the project by reducing travel. there are talented artists all over that don't necessarily have the resources or the desire to be n New York City. I can also feel their connections to a location through their body language and physical storytelling.
ts: tell us about megaflora.
msp: megaflora is the newest project in the site-specific dances series. it was filmed amongst the california sequoias and coastal redwoods that are in danger from the increasingly harmful forest fires due to climate change, forest mismanagement, and the loss of indigenous land stewardship practices. megaflora places dancers amongst these 2500+ year old monarchs to showcase their majesty and fragility during this challenging time for their ecosystem. we are currently in the process of conducting interviews with climate scientists, tree biologists, park rangers, woodland firefighters, and indigenous representatives to tell the story of these iconic trees that are only found on the west coast and are being lost at alarming rates.
ts: how do you erase hate in your every day life?
msp: I believe humility and empathy go a long way. I try to be a good listener. I try to see and hear what people are going through, and react accordingly. I promote, as well as collaborate with dancers and artists that reinforce my belief in equity in the arts. lastly, our arts in education program, dance landscapes, addresses these issues with k-12 students. the program uses dance and environmentalism for students to create their own choreographed work. during the process, students learn team building and acceptance of their peers through creativity and dance. planting the seeds of acceptance within young people is the only way we can truly erase hate.