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Crossing the railroad overpass toward the shores of Richmond Saltwater Beach Park, the sight of ocean waters blends like a watercolor into the misty horizon. Sense of time slows as wave-tumbled beach rocks roll underfoot. Somatic response to place is the foundational principle for Humility: Drift, a site-specific improv performance directed by Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone. She created the work over the past three years as the City of Shoreline Artist in Residence. Loeffler-Gladstone, who is a naturalist with the Washington State University Beach Watchers, says in a press release that Drift is a “dance taught to people by the beach ecology itself.” 

Photo by Allina Yang

Before the performance begins, the audience gathers around Loeffler-Gladstone and she tells us about the site that bears the scars of colonial use ranging from an underwater ship graveyard to a nearby quarry. Connecting to a global scale, she admits struggles with the significance of creating Drift under the haunting specter of the war in Palestine. Mindful of her words, the audience follows performer Maia Melene D’urfé on a short walk to the beach past the only tree left on this side of the tracks and the litter of Solo cups around the ashes of a party fire. 

Once on the shore, the dancers help us attune to the rhythms of the natural world. Sara Caplan gently bounces in place, rock clasped in hand swinging her arm like a metronome of the slowly encroaching tide. D’urfé quietly urges us to choose a rock that feels good in our hands. I feel the rock’s weight in my pocket as I watch Ellie van Bever and D’urfé lean against each other slipping in the sand. At times, head to stomach, their entwinement seems an awkward struggle, but one catches the other as she falls to the beach. A random man walks by unseeing. 

A passing train moans in the background. The dancers encourage us to let our rocks fly into the water and to turn our attention to interacting with a time-smoothed driftwood log. The audience assembles and wordlessly begins to rotate and roll along the log like an improvisational dance—impressive for a group of strangers. 

Photo by Allina Yang

I think about how dance can offer a unique approach to problem solving. I watch the performers worm one-by-one through and over the roots of the driftwood log. Each finds their own way—some upside down, some feet to sky.  Even though each performer takes a different path and has their own perspective, the dancers all collect in a comforting communal pile at the foot of the log. 

The score shifts with Tai-chi-like smoothness to a collection of pilings at the water’s edge. One dancer perches suspended atop the piling, slowly twisting in the breeze. Another’s head juts forward and back as she walks like a heron hunting as I spot a real heron standing regally still just down the beach. The dancers join hands facing the water and their hips ripple in a synchronous canon with the waves. They embody the concept that for every action there is a reaction, even energetically across space and time. The dancers pass a piece of kelp along like a talking stick and I am struck by the way the ocean connects humans over vast distances. It reminds me of a novel, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, where a Japanese girl and an American woman’s lives become intertwined when the girl’s diary travels as flotsam to the US from the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan.  

Finally hypnotized and relaxed by the sound of the surf, I am grateful when we are encouraged to lie on the beach with eyes closed against the sun that is beginning to melt through the clouds. Come to find out, we are manifesting the “Harbor Seal Score” described on one of the five “embodied ecology cards” created for Drift by scientific illustrator Madison Mayfield. Audience members take home sets of these beautiful, laminated cards. They are inspired by traditional field guides but question Western naturalism’s presumed hierarchy of knowledge by prompting users to explore beach ecology through movement. 

Photo by Allina Yang

The audience dissipates from Humility: Drift having participated in an experiment of relating to the world through sensation-based empathy. Loeffler-Gladstone says the title is inspired by the derivation of “humility” meaning to lower oneself and the Latin word “humus,” or soil. Who knows what the ripple effects will be if more people dig into their surroundings and begin to feel a relational bond to the life around us? 

Humility: Drift was performed on May 18, 2024 at Richmond Beach Saltwater Park.