Bella GaiaLike many great artists, Kenji Williams uses his work to incite change. With his groundbreaking collaborative project Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth), Williams has taken that change to astounding heights, transporting audience members into outer space in a theatrical, multimedia experience promoting environmental awareness at a global level. Audience members engage with musical orchestrations, dance performances, and an audiovisual journey around the Earth. But Bella Gaia takes the aesthetic journey one step further, utilizing scientific information and video imagery of the Earth provided by NASA itself, specifically geared toward the performance. 

I had the unique opportunity to speak with Bella Gaia creator and director Kenji Williams about this transformative project, which has already been performed at venues around the world and continues to spark enthusiasm amongst each of its audience members.

What do you hope to impart to audience members with this immersive musical experience that they can not experience elsewhere?

What I want the audience to come away with is a sense of a deeper emotional connection, to have a greater understanding of the inter-relationship between human beings and nature. The overall message is that our actions affect other things. It is incredibly simple, but undeniable.

The idea for Bella Gaia came to Williams after an engrossing conversation with American astronaut Michael Fincke, who now holds the record in the United States for the longest time spent in outer space — nearly 382 days! Fincke shared with him the extraordinary impact of seeing the Earth from space. Williams explained to me that this objective experience of seeing the Earth from outside of it has been called the “Overview Effect.” 

Only experienced by the select few who have been chosen to venture into outer space, the “Overview Effect” often results in a deepening emotional and spiritual connection between the human experiencer and the Earth as a home amongst millions of other planets of endless solar systems. Bella Gaia has become Williams’ answer to the question: How can someone have this experience without going into outer space?

Did you spend a lot of time deciding which images of the Earth to use in the performance?

It’s mostly video imagery. Everything is constantly moving.

Williams discussed the performances being formulated around 10 terabytes of audiovisual information he has amassed, enabling performances to range from approximately ten to eighty minutes, depending on the venue and the event. 

We can even bring a local aspect to it — which makes [the performance] more immediate.

For example, a Bella Gaia performance in Houston, Texas in 2011 included visualizations of their recent devastating forest fires, actually visible from space. 

Williams explained that NASA has been instrumental not only in their financial support of the show, but also in their support for Bella Gaia as a way to broaden public awareness of their local contributions to the world. During the partnership Williams has forged, NASA has contributed hours of video imagery to Bella Gaia, ranging from visual interpretations of statistics, called “Data Visualization” (e.g. a representation of airline flight patterns over the entire globe) to time elapse imagery (e.g. demonstrating the melting of the polar ice caps.) 

 “They don’t just send people into space,” Williams remarked, emphasizing that much of NASA’s research has a concrete impact on our lives here. Williams highlighted NASA’s involvement in countless areas of research pertinent to daily life, which runs contrary to the mainstream view that NASA has always been focused on outer space. “I’m almost like NASA’s greatest evangelist,” he joked.

How do you think this “Overview Effect” is translated the most deeply in this performative experience?

The show [has the audience] riding along a space station. [There are] photorealistic visualizations using NASA data and satellite imagery. [It is an] accurate simulation of space flight.

With the cooperation of NASA, Bella Gaia gives audience members the sights they could only otherwise see with aeronautic training. And as far as sounds are concerned, Williams brought his years of musical experience as a composer and violinist to the performance. He wrote all of the arrangements, except for the sections dedicated to Japan and India, for which he enlisted musicians Yumi Kurasawa and Deep Singh, using the Japanese Koto and Indian Tabla, respectively. During the Egypt section, Bella Gaia takes the audience from ancient Egypt to modern Egypt, and even to future Egypt, with musician Lety ElNaggar contributing the sounds of the Ney, a traditional middle-eastern flute instrument. These elements add further layers of authenticity to the experience, keeping audience members connected to the human traditions on Earth while navigating through space and time.

One might also be curious as to what kind of storyline could bring together such a vast number of elements across the world. Williams says the narrative is organic, coming from the exploration of each part of the earth and its relationship to the environment.

We’re exploring ways in which these cultures throughout history connected to nature. We’ve lost that today. There’s no ritual that takes us back to nature.

So how does Bella Gaia fit into this lack of connection?

Bella Gaia is a post-modern ritual.

Do you think Bella Gaia can also be viewed as a cautionary tale?

For sure. There are plenty of hints of caution. But it’s also about inspiration. The message of Bella Gaia is really to celebrate humans. We are just struggling at this moment, and it’s a very pivotal moment, and Bella Gaia is there to remind us of our creative potential.

In speaking with audience members on both the scientific side and the more artistic side, how do their experiences differ?

The reaction is surprisingly uniform. 

Williams elaborated that in order for Bella Gaia to be both affective for audience members and effective as an overall project, he needed,

[…] to create a language that speaks to our generation. We live in such a mediated world, such a visual world. And in a way, written language doesn’t move us anymore. We have to speak the language of today and translate the information in a compelling way, visually.

With Bella Gaia, Williams has created a theatrical experience with a necessary, far-reaching impact. As a testament to the power of Bella Gaia, Williams conveyed an encounter he had with one climate-change skeptic attending the show, who, after the performance, told him, ‘I think you’ve changed my mind.’

For further information or to purchase tickets, visit http://www.bellagaia.com

Bella Gaia will be in Dallas on February 25th at the Texas Winspear Opera House.

Bella Gaia comes to New York in March 2013 with special performances for Japan Week at both Grand Central Terminal (3/19) and the Skirball Auditorium at NYU (3/31).

 

Photo courtesy of BellaGaia.com