‘Fire Speaks the Land’

Dance, music, fire science blended in special performance

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A CoMotion dancer performs in “Fire Speaks the Land” on March 27 at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.

Fire science education was rhythmically blended with dance and music recently at the Whitefish Performing Arts Center.

A student audience explored the physical properties and ecology of fire through original choreography and traditional native perspectives during “Fire Speaks the Land: An Interactive Performance.”

University of Montana CoMotion Dance Project company members performed “Fire Speaks the Land” over two days for students from 11 Flathead Valley schools.

On March 27, CoMotion members bounded across the stage and writhed like flames under the changing glow of orange, red, yellow and green lights.

“Fire has a voice, too,” a narrator said over the speakers. “One you need to listen to as we live the story of this land.”

“Fire Speaks the Land” was designed for kindergarten- through sixth-grade audiences to teach science concepts. Students learned about concepts such as the fire triangle (oxygen, heat and fuel, the ingredients needed to create and sustain fire) and were shown how fire spreads.

The goal of “Fire Speaks the Land” is to impart an understanding that fire is nature’s way of maintaining a healthy forest ecosystem.

To illustrate the fire triangle, dancers converged into a triangle shape on stage.

“Just like a triangle needs all three sides, you take away one side and it falls,” said Karen Kaufmann, director of CoMotion Dance Project and dance program head at the University of Montana.

“There is a dance to the cycle of destruction, transformation and regeneration of forests,” the narrator said. “All living beings, animals and plants, people and trees, flowers and birds, have been making a place for themselves in the dance.”

The performance also was an opportunity to teach students about dance and rhythm.

“Dancers use count to coordinate their movement,” Kaufmann said.

Performers then demonstrated dance moves synched to eight counts.

“Notice dancers move in lots of different ways,” Kaufmann said.

Audience participation was an integral part of the performance. Teachers were called to the stage, causing students to break out in raucous cheering. The teachers would demonstrate how fire moves throughout a forest through “conduction.”

“So there’s this burning ember, this single ember, and it touches a leaf and it touches some more leaves and it touches a twig and it touches some branches and pretty soon it’s ignited a fire,” Kaufmann said. “Let’s watch this fire conduct all the way through our forest.”

Kaufmann handed a small hoop of red and orange ribbons to the first person in line, who passed it to the next teacher. Kalispell Montessori Elementary Director Renee Boisseau really put the fire into the flame with some showy moves to great applause before passing the hoop to the next teacher. Teachers became increasingly freer with their moves, adding jumps, kicks and leaps.

“That is the teachers’ conductive dance,” Kaufmann said.

Students then learned how fire spreads through convection and radiation. Students also learned how fire affects and aids in the propagation of trees such as ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine and white bark pine.

Earlier in the week, CoMotion members held movement workshops at Kalispell Montessori Elementary. Students then shared their forest regeneration dance on stage.

Stella Eddy, a fifth-grader at Kalispell Montessori, said it was fun but a bit scary being on stage in front of a large audience of peers. Eddy said the CoMotion dancers did a great job expressing the movement of fire.

Montessori sixth-grader Evan Hendrickson said he enjoyed the music and hadn’t seen anything like the performance before.

“It was interesting,” Hendrickson said.

This is the third year of performing “Fire Speaks the Land,” Kaufman said.

She and her husband, Steve Kalling, a fire lookout, came up with the idea to teach about fire through dance. For more than 20 years, Kaufmann has composed programs about a variety of educational topics such as Newton’s law of motion, grammar and the water cycle.

“Children respond so innately to dance. They understand it, they’re excited by it,” Kaufmann said. “Children need to move and my feeling is that there isn’t enough movement in the elementary curriculum so my work has been about finding ways to dance the curriculum. We call it dance integration.”

“Fire Speaks the Land” was written and produced by Kaufmann and Kalling. Blackfeet musician and storyteller Jack Gladstone narrated the sound score.

The “Fire Speaks the Land” tour is supported in part by The University of Montana, Montana Cultural Trust, Public Value Partnership, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Flathead Conservation District, Cadeau Foundation, Idaho Firewise, Nez Perce Tribe Forestry and Fire Management Division, Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, the North Central Idaho Fire Prevention Cooperative, Whitefish Performing Arts Center, Flathead National Forest and Missoula Fire Sciences Lab.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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