Back to all news stories


Belle Isle and beyond: Cultivating ecoliteracy through the arts

By Sydney Hawkins

A dance professor and a Great Lakes researcher from U-M team-up to bring Detroit school kids closer to nature through facilitating a variety of creative activities on Detroit's Belle Isle.
Last year, during an impromptu workshop on campus to visiting middle schoolers from Detroit Public Schools, Sara Adlerstein Gonzalez noticed something concerning. “I was asked to put together a nature workshop for some kids who were taking part in a U-M athletics camp, and they didn’t seem to know much about the natural world around them,” said Adlerstein, an associate research scientist in the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability. “I was surprised, and it got me thinking about kids growing up in an urban setting—that they likely don’t get a lot of opportunities to feel really connected to nature.” Soon after this encounter, Adlerstein met with her favorite collaborator on campus—Jessica Fogel, a professor of dance at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. While it may seem like an unorthodox pairing, Fogel and Adlerstein have been collaborating for more than 10 years on unique projects that bridge the performing arts and environmental stewardship.  Adlerstein told her about her experience at the workshop and proposed an educational project to connect kids with nature, in particular to water and the Great Lakes. Fogel—known internationally for creating multidisciplinary, site-specific dance choreography—then turned her interest to Detroit’s 982-acre island park, Belle Isle. “For a long time, I had wanted to explore Belle Isle and get to know it as a possible site for a performance,” said Fogel, who had been looking for a new project. “It also made sense for this collaboration because it is a really beautiful, accessible place in Detroit.” With that, the two set out to create a project that would “enable the arts to encourage an embodied, imaginative, and reflective engagement with nature in order to cultivate environmental empathy and stewardship.”

Ecology and the arts

Almost immediately, Fogel enlisted her friend and former student Erika Stowall (BFA ’08), an award-winning dance artist residing in Detroit, as a collaborator. In addition to being the founder and artistic director of the Big Red Wall Dance Company—one that is dedicated to creating a movement for the black body and the black female experience—Stowall was, at the time, a dance instructor at the Detroit Academy of Arts and Science (DAAS). For 10 Fridays during the Spring 2019 semester, Stowall invited Fogel and Adlerstein to her after-school dance program at DAAS, where they led sensory engagement workshops for a group of 5th–8th-grade students at the school and at the Belle Isle Nature Center. Their aim was to encourage a deepening of the students’ understanding of Great Lakes ecosystems by highlighting the relationship between Detroit’s built and natural environments.

Students from the Detroit Academy of Arts and Science (DAAS) on Belle Isle recording sounds for one of the workshops.

“When they approached me to collaborate on this project, I knew it would be something that was completely out of the kids’ comfort zone,” said Stowall, who now teaches at Detroit’s Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School. “They were hesitant at first, but as the weeks progressed, they became more focused on and committed to the ideas that were being presented to them, and I was really proud of their final product.” The workshops included engagement activities with more than 20 project collaborators, including staff at the Belle Isle Nature Center and The Detroit Zoological Society, dancers and educators from Stowall’s Big Red Wall Dance Company, and a variety of students and faculty from various disciplines at U-M.  For the dance workshops held at DAAS, Fogel led students in several improvisational exercises in which they explored the water cycle, the movement of fish and humans in the water, the functions of water in our everyday lives, and the connectedness between water quality in urban and natural settings. She worked with them to create a dance to a song about ecology by Stan Slaughter titled “We’re All Connected,” which was performed by DAAS students at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as a part of their end-of-year recital in May. For the ecology workshops on the island, Belle Isle Nature Center education specialists, Adlerstein, and other U-M team members led students on nature walks, recorded the sounds of the island, and worked with them to identify and collect natural materials, which were used to create artworks that were featured in a culminating art exhibition that was on view at the Belle Isle Nature Center throughout the summer of 2019. “Our goal was to use movement, sound, and visual arts to bring the students closer to nature in hopes that they would begin to develop a love and responsibility for the environment,” said Adlerstein, who is also a visual artist and curator of the Art and Environment Gallery at U-M. “We tried to show them that everyone has a role to play in taking care of our planet, even kids.”

A dance to celebrate Belle Isle

On a grey spring weekend on Detroit’s beloved Belle Isle, crowds gathered as the seven dancers from U-M’s Ann Arbor Dance Works and Detroit’s Big Red Wall Dance Company came together for four surprising, unconventional performances. The dancers, who collaborated with Fogel and Stowall to choreograph the site-specific, semi-improvisational work, started at the Nature Center, and led audience members along a nature trail, across a parking lot, and to the shores of Lake Muskoday, one of Belle Isle’s several manmade lakes that has recently undergone restoration to improve the water quality. On the shore of the lake, the dancers changed into waders, got into the lake, and performed a water-pouring ritual immersed in the waters. Stowall, who also danced in the performance, titled “Belle Isle and Beyond,” said that bringing it into the water was unexpected, yet characteristic of her former professor’s creativity, perseverance and dedication to her craft.
Erika Stowall (left)

Erika Stowall (BFA ’08), featured left, was enlisted by School of Music, Theatre & Dance Professor Jessica Fogel to collaborate and dance in “Belle Isle and Beyond.”

“This was completely out of the norm for the kind of work we do at our studio, but we took on the challenge that she presented and I think that the end result was really beautiful,” said Stowall.  “Jessica has always been carefree, energetic, daring, unorthodox—and she’ll try everything until she gets to a solution. Working with her has really inspired me to think outside the typical realm of where a performance can happen—and I Iove the idea of performance as public art, which is really important in a place like Detroit.” Fogel admitted that coordinating the dance was challenging. “We really pushed the boundaries of how we could present a dance that would honor and celebrate Belle Isle’s natural beauty and its ongoing restoration activities,” said Fogel, who spent nearly a year researching and visiting the island in preparation. “This was a fantastic partnership, and the people we worked with at the Belle Isle Nature Center really helped us to achieve our vision and share it with visitors there.”
The professional performances, which were presented on June 8–9,2019, were inspired by the investigations of the DAAS middle school students and the workshops that they took part in on Belle Isle. In fact, the score created for the performance was an ambient electronic composition that incorporates the sounds of the island—birds chirping, wind blowing, water splashing, and children laughing—that were recorded during their nature walks. Titled "Belle Isle Reverie," it was composed by Michael Gurevich, associate professor of Performing Arts Technology and Tessa Fornari, a U-M Performing Arts Technology student majoring in sound engineering. Fogel, Alderstein, and their partners at U-M and in Detroit are hoping that this work serves as a pilot for future community arts and environmental stewardship projects, especially those in which the voices of community members are centralized and celebrated. "There were a lot of different people and elements that came together to make this project possible—you can see how one act or movement inspired another interaction, which was reflected in the final performance as well," said Fogel. "Projects like this involving arts experiences open our senses and encourage us to pay attention, cultivating a visceral engagement with nature, and in turn, inspire us to take the lead in sustaining best practices for the environment." Generous funding and sponsorship for this project has been provided by U-M's Mcubed 3.0 program; the U-M Edward Ginsberg Center; the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion; the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Detroit Zoological Society; and the Belle Isle Nature Center.