Irina Akulenko performs a dance inspired by Egyptian culture and social issues at a “Bella Gaia” performance. (Anna Galuza)

Irina Akulenko performs a dance inspired by Egyptian culture and social issues at a “Bella Gaia” performance. (Anna Galuza)

NASA-inspired ‘Bella Gaia’ explores planet with music, dance

The multimedia show in Edmonds was inspired by astronauts who saw the Earth from space.

Earth looks a lot like a living organism from outer space.

Political and cultural differences give way to forests, seas and mountains. The interconnection of all things — especially humanity’s relationship with nature — returns to focus.

This feeling, referred to as the “overview effect,” is a phenomenon experienced by astronauts who have made the International Space Station their home 254 miles above Earth.

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looks through a window in the International Space Station. Astronauts’ experiences inspired “Bella Gaia.” (NASA)

NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson looks through a window in the International Space Station. Astronauts’ experiences inspired “Bella Gaia.” (NASA)

Kenji Williams, a filmmaker, violinist and composer from New York, learned about the effect when he met astronaut Edward Michael “Mike” Fincke in 2005. Up until 2015, Fincke held the American record for most days in space (381.6). (Scott Kelly holds the record at 520 days.)

Williams, 44, whose career focus has been to create art for a greater purpose, spent the next few years figuring out how to replicate that feeling for those who can’t go into space.

His efforts resulted in “Bella Gaia,” a show that blends world music, dance and NASA images, to be staged Jan. 17 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts.

What began as a solo production in 2009 has since expanded into an award-winning multimedia experience. In Edmonds, performances include Williams on violin and choreography by dancers Irina Akulenko and Mariyah.

“I really wanted to create an experience that transformed people,” Williams said. “There needs to be a new emphasis and value in emotional connections to very abstract things, like climate change.”

”Bella Gaia” turns the stage into a planetariumlike display with NASA-powered imagery. (NASA)

”Bella Gaia” turns the stage into a planetariumlike display with NASA-powered imagery. (NASA)

“Bella Gaia,” which translates to “Beautiful Earth,” presents the Earth as a multifaceted yet cohesive organism. It also shows how human activity has become the dominant influence on the environment.

How does Williams do this? By turning the stage into a planetarium of sorts through sophisticated visualization software.

Satellite data from major climate change crises and disasters both past and present — such as last summer’s devastating California wildfires, rising carbon emissions and melting ice caps — are mapped onto a spinning 3D globe and projected on screen behind the performers.

These orbital views, which also include projections of ocean currents and air traffic flight paths, give the audience the perspective of an astronaut viewing the events from space.

Williams said “Bella Gaia” is a bridge between art and science.

“Scientific visualizations suddenly become beautiful, intricate paintings,” Williams said. “Perhaps it is beautiful and disturbing. But it really does bring a new perspective that I think has been lacking in the climate change movement.”

“Bella Gaia” includes visualizations of Mediterranean Sea currents using data and software from NASA. (NASA)

“Bella Gaia” includes visualizations of Mediterranean Sea currents using data and software from NASA. (NASA)

Williams pairs space images with ethereal violin melodies that he loops with electronica rhythms he co-composed with other artists. Dance performances explore cultures and regions affected by environmental and social issues, including India (near-dry Ganges River), the Middle East (ongoing conflict) and Japan (nuclear disaster).

“It’s very emotionally moving in the way we present the information,” Williams said. “There is no narrator. It’s all music and visual communication.

“Just presenting data and statistics doesn’t change people’s minds. Ultimately, humans don’t act unless it affects us personally. ‘Bella Gaia’ brings this home.”

Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, ethompson @heraldnet.com. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.

If you go

“Bella Gaia” is at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Edmonds Center for the Arts, 410 Fourth Ave. N., Edmonds. Tickets start at $19 for adults, and $15 for students and youth. Call 425-275-9595 or go to www.ec4arts.org for ticket information.

A pre-show talk titled “Indigenous Perspectives of Earth and Space” will be presented in a TED Talk format from 6 to 6:40 p.m. Speakers include “Bella Gaia” creator Kenji Williams and physicists Joey Shapiro Key and Corey Gray.

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