Imagining Water #17: Dancing for Fresh Water Everywhere

by Susan Hoffman Fishman 

During the first three decades of the 20thcentury, Rudolf von Laban, an Austro-Hungarian dance artist and theorist who is regarded as one of the founders of modern dance in Europe, developed what he called “movement choirs.” Just as vocal choirs are groups of people singing as one, movement choirs, as Laban defined them, involve large numbers of people moving together according to directed choreography and some elements of individual expression. His theory of dance included the notion that there is a natural connection between dance and nature. He said that:

Existence is movement. Action is movement. Existence is defined by the rhythm of forces in natural balance (…) It is our appreciation for dance that allows us to see clearly the rhythms of nature and to take natural rhythm to a plane of well-organised (sic) art and culture.

In 2008, almost one hundred years after Laban created movement choirs, an international group of 11 individuals, certified by the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies in New York City, met at a conference on Movement and the Environment at Schumacher College in South Devon, England.

Inspired by the conference, the setting and each other, the original group of 11, all with extensive experience producing movement choirs, decided to develop a global dance project related to the environment using this format. After discarding other elements such as air, wind and soil, the group chose water as the focus of the project, which they named Global Water Dances: Dancing for Fresh Water Everywhere. Their mission was to “connect and support a global community of choreographers and dancers to inspire action and international collaboration for water issues through the universal language of dance.” Global Water Dances is now part of the Arts and Culture programming of the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies, the organization that originally sponsored the conference in 2008, where the project was born.

The original planning team chose Marylee Hardenbergh from among their group to serve as the Artistic/Executive Director of Global Water Dances. Hardenbergh is a choreographer and former dance therapist with decades of experience creating large-scale, outdoor, site-specific performances all over the world. Hardenbergh and I spoke by phone recently about Global Water Dances and about her own inspiring work. As she relates on her website, titled Global Site Performance, her dances have taken place at a wide variety of locations, including:

an Aerial Lift Bridge; on skyscrapers; on a bombed-out Parliament Building in Sarajevo, Bosnia; on a clock tower on the Volga in Russia; on a Mediterranean beach in Israel with a Palestinian community, and; on oyster harvesting boats on the Housatonic River. (She’s) worked with community and trained dancers all over the globe and has turned Bobcat loaders, fire trucks and Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corps boats into dancers.

When I asked Hardenbergh which of her numerous projects outside of Global Water Dances was the most memorable for her, she described The Plant Dance, which took place at a sewage treatment plant in 1995 near her hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hardenbergh’s concept was to show through dance the process that converted waste water into clean water. In addition to watching the dance itself, audience members were invited on a tour of the plant – an eye-opening experience that showed them firsthand what happened after they flushed the toilet. Ultimately, the film that was created about the project won an award from the National Water Environment Federation.

The Plant Dance choregraphed by Marylee Hardenbergh, 1995

Hardenbergh explained in our conversation that the first biennial Global Water Dances took place on June 25, 2011, with 57 sites participating, including Florence, Beijing, Berlin, Cairo, Lagos, Mexico City, Paris, Tel Aviv, The Hague, Vienna and numerous other global and U.S. cities. Local choreographers who signed up were asked to choose outdoor sites that involved water. They were given a template consisting of a component to be choreographed locally with music of their own choice and a global section in which all sites performed movements using the same music. Local planners were encouraged to include community action events related to local water issues. 

Global Water Dances 2015, Tamale, Ghana
Global Water Dances 2015, Delhi, India

Three additional Global Water Dances occurred in 2013, 2015 and 2017 using the same format, with the number of sites growing incrementally from 63 in 2013 to 106 in 2017. Four months before the June 15, 2019 event, 125 sites have already registered. Hardenbergh described the project as an homage to water, an opportunity for audiences and dancers to pause from their busy schedules to actually look at a river or other body of water for an extended length of time, and a vehicle for community building. The video below is a compilation of the dances from Global Water Dances 2017 and shows the remarkable diversity of the sites and participants.

Although Global Water Dances celebrates and brings recognition to the beauty, power and universality of water as well as to current problems affecting the viability of water, its leadership realizes that environmental action is equally important in solving water issues. They’ve documented some examples of how the local dances have brought awareness and change to local water problems, including the two described below:

In Takoradi, Ghana (Ankobra River, 2017), environmental engineer Emmanuel Brace described how

the dance performance was choreographed to raise awareness about the adverse impacts of unsustainable mining practices, called galamsey. The ideologies reflected in the choreography and overall performances advocate a “bottom-up” approach and effective stakeholder engagement practices. The chief of Funko region and the regent of Akatenke spoke about the importance of the event and their efforts to stop galamsey practices.

In Buffalo, New York (Buffalo River, 2017), choreographer Cynthia Pegado related how

we raised awareness of the need for increased research on effects of ingested toxins and continued advocacy for clean water because research shows certain environmental exposures for people with genetic disposition increase the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease. PCBs have been found in relatively high concentrations in the brains of people who had Parkinson’s disease. Our message is especially strong because our Global Water Dances performers are people with Parkinson’s disease.

As I have learned repeatedly from writing this series, there are hundreds of visual artists, playwrights, poets, musicians, spoken word artists, etc. all over the world who are tackling the topic of water as it relates to climate change and environmental crises. The Global Water Dances project shows that the universal language of dance is a compelling vehicle for communicating ideas about climate change and the environment in an effective and engaging way.

(Top image: Global Water Dances 2013: Sunshine Coast, British Columbia)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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