On the evening of March 15, 2020, Michael Spencer Phillips sat alone in a hotel room looking out onto the quiet streets of Paris. The cafés were shuttered and the doors to the Louvre and Museé d’Orsay were closed—it was a sullen night in the City of Lights. Michael was dealing with a nasty bout of COVID; he had been a shell of himself on stage earlier that evening performing with Rioult Dance New York. The remaining Paris shows had been cancelled, as had the dates for the rest of the company’s Spring season. Darkness and doubt started to creep in, and it all flashed before his eyes: he may never dance for Rioult again.
Michael Spencer Phillips on set in California. He eschews the flippancy of the phrase “pandemic pivot” that he heard so often in New York during the early months of the pandemic. For Michael, Megaflora is the result of more than a year and a half spent forging his own path of creative rediscovery.
Hard days and nights followed Michael back to New York. He spent a lot of time wondering if he would ever get on stage again. Would he end up playing one of the older roles in a company? How would his body react to the rigours of modern dance if he took too much time off? Had he really been delivered to his professional executioner at the pinnacle of his career? It felt cruel and unjust, and yet here he was facing the real possibility that the pandemic might mark the death knell of his twenty-year career.
“You hear all these famous quotes that prolific dancers and artists have said throughout the years,” Michael confesses. “Then you realize that you’ve grown old, and it hits you hard.” The irony is that “just when you feel like you have more to say as an artist, your body has less to give.”
The world of professional dance is unapologetically transactional—it takes as much as it gives and leaves in its wake liberation and triumph among the damaged bodies and broken dreams. Michael agonized over whether it had taken all it ever would from him. He heard the echo of Martha Graham’s timeless prophecy. “A dancer dies twice,” the matriarch of modern dance famously lamented, “once when they stop dancing, and this first death is the more painful.”
For Michael, this proverbial death was a kind of incarceration brought on by the pandemic, albeit a collective sentence he shared with dancers and performance artists the world over. Unfortunately for him, it came at the wrong time—just as he was staring down the wrong side of forty. “You’ve reached this stage of life where you’ve experienced death, disappointment, people around you sharing love,” he says as if flipping through chapters of his life in New York. “You feel like this is my time to express the physical and emotional depths of myself as an artist.” Then suddenly, it begins to slip away.
At the height of the pandemic, Michael and his husband Dino packed up their apartment and left New York for Michael’s parents’ house near Traverse City, Michigan. Tuning out the vacuous eschatological musings foretelling the demise of the art world, it stood to reason that large gatherings weren’t likely to resume any time soon. So Michael and Dino, a South African architect, said: “Fuck it. There’s nowhere to go but up. Let’s give it try.” Dino’s firm was working remotely and construction had been deemed an essential industry. They’d be fine in the short term.
Dino has a way of artfully, if brusquely, getting right to the point. There were other considerations on his mind. “I wanted him to focus on making his own work, rather than simply executing the ideas of another choreographer—to be the ‘architect’ of his creations rather than the contractor.” The plan was for Michael to make the transition from dance into the fashion world as a movement director, and to make his own choreographic works for the stage.
They weren’t settled in long when the Traverse City Dance Project commissioned Michael to make a dance film and paired him with Darian Donovan Thomas, a young composer he had never met. When he wasn’t choreographing movements in his childhood backyard, he and Dino were driving all over the Old Mission Peninsula scouting landscapes for the dance sequences. The day trips brought them to windswept shortgrass prairies, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Grand Traverse Bay. The landscapes were so magnificent, so expansive, there was no other way to capture the enormity of the scenes they were envisioning other than with a drone. Dino gifted Michael one on his birthday and the two spent the next few weeks labouring over their new toy, traveling to shooting locations, and experimenting with videography, lighting, and framing. Meanwhile, Michael was trying to figure out how to choreograph dance sequences in nature that would inspire a narrative.
One summer afternoon, Michael’s father joined them on a reconnaissance mission. The plan was for him to tow Michael 500 feet offshore on a jet ski and leave him there to float above the drop-off. Dino, who had been christened producer-cinematographer for this sequence, prepared the drone, while Michael and his father took off toward a hazy arc of discolouration where the turquoise waters of the sandy bay give way to the midnight blues depth of glacial Lake Michigan. They cut the engine and suddenly it was just father and son rocking on the gentle waves above a yawning watery chasm. For a moment it was as if time had relented and returned to them a sliver of all that was good in the past.
Back on shore, Dino gave the thumbs up and Michael instructed his father to take the jet ski far enough away that it wouldn’t be in the frame, and dove into the water. He’d signal his father when he needed to get picked up. Unsure how far he was meant to take the jet ski (or how sound the risk management plan was), Michael’s father bobbed on the fringes of the frame while Dino gesticulated wildly from shore to indicate that he should keep going. By the time the shot came together forty minutes later, Michael’s father was nowhere in sight. Too far, at least, to see his son signaling to be picked up. “I was out in like forty feet of water,” Michael laughs. “Eventually I got Dino’s attention on the drone and let him know to tell my father to come get me.”
Michael’s description of the origin story of “Site-Specific Dances” and the culmination of his 30-year journey reveals the unmistakable arc of the monomyth: the boy must die so the man can be reborn. For Michael, the proverbial death was not unwelcome. The 11-year-old boy ultimately returned to his parents’ home, on a path of katabasis (descent), only to experience his unexpected creative rebirth as a 42-year-old married man in his childhood backyard. A profound sense of equilibrium and serenity bleeds from an image Dino took of Michael floating alone in Lake Michigan, buoyant above the abyss, arms outstretched, having completely surrendered to the great lake of his youth. I was reminded of a hymn by William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.“
When filming wrapped in Michigan, Michael reached out to Emma Kazaryan, a former dancer, now multimedia journalist, to help edit the early cut. “When Michael sent me the footage, I suggested he split it into colours,” she recalls. “He filmed in white and blue, and it was named To/From. That was the premise of the film.” Emma soon realized that working on a non-narrative film came with a lot of unknowns. “You’re telling a story without telling a story. So you have to go with what you feel and add shots that make sense to the viewer.”
Without a template or many precedents to draw from, Michael began exploring ways to tell stories silently, solely through movement. “When I started working with the drone, I asked myself: Can a landscape dance? Can all these elements of nature be a protagonist and not just a backdrop? How can a tree be a character in the story I’m telling? Dance is an art form without words: how can I tell a story about environmental issues using a language that doesn’t have words?”
(Top row) Scenes from “Site Specific Dances” with Cathedral Rock in the background. (Bottom row) Local dancers perform inside Robber’s Roost cave, Sedona, Arizona. (Bottom right) Atop Bell Rock.
With the completion of To/From, the production moved to Sedona, where Michael intended to film a sequence of movements on the precarious, tiered cliffs of Bell Rock. Emma remembers: “We were following the natural contours, filming 11 or 12 dancers moving forward on the uneven surface, when they instinctively started walking toward the sun. It became a moment of unity and magic. I think it was a testament to the fact that Michael was going in the right direction.”
Dressed in loose, blindingly white cloth, a dozen dancers positioned themselves on crumbling terraces hundreds of feet above the red rock desert floor, performing movements of subtle precision. The drone rose from beneath them, capturing a scene of such fluidity that it seems as if the dancers became one with the wind itself fluttering across the face of the ancient crimson cliff. The effect was a mesmerizing, sensuous, silent elegy, reminiscent of Kurosawa’s Dreams.
“There is no better theatre than the natural world,” Michael affirms. “No film, no stage, no concert hall is ever going to match standing on what feels like the edge of the world dancing to a sunset.”
But Dino and Michael needed the imagery to say more, to communicate their message more cogently, to be more provocative. “It was imperative they weren’t just dancing in front of pretty backdrops. We wanted to advance the art of dance. We all build up certain walls or barriers to our creativity due to our disciplinary training. When you embark on an interdisciplinary project, something from ‘outside’ can help you rethink aspects within your discipline beyond your training—to produce something that might be new or innovative.” Seeking a new aesthetic that was more than just a form of dance, they began to envision something more akin to environmental ballet.
Megaflora was necessarily collaborative. Each scene presented a set of equations that needed to be solved by both performers and production crew.
In the late summer of 2021, we flew out to California and drove down the peninsula from San Francisco to a family compound tucked away in the mountains west of Los Gatos, where the third of Michael’s “Site-Specific Dances” had begun filming. We turned onto an unpaved road and passed a few houses slowly collapsing under their own weight, before parking at a locked gate next to four dancers dressed in full-body, cinnabar-coloured leotards. Beyond the locked gate, we followed a shady dirt road deeper into the forest and came upon a lost commune of one-bedroom hovels covered in graffiti, clinging desperately to the steep ridgeline as if hanging onto the sins of their past. The path continued on shielded by a hundred-foot canopy and ended at a perfect circle of redwoods that eerily resembled the set of a Manson Family home video.
Michael emerged within the circular copse dressed like Ken Kesey or a character in an early Hemingway novel who’d just escaped from a logging camp in the Upper Peninsula. Dressed in a flannel shirt and shorts while sporting a stout, manicured mustache, Michael had been busy sweeping leaves and branches away from the centre of the clearing, noting any hidden knots, roots, or holes in the soil to Emma and the dancers who’d just arrived. He was dealing with another problem: the redwoods in this fairy ring had risen shoulder-to-shoulder, and the drone operator was finding it impossible to get a clear shot between the trees. The two were tromping through poison sumac, maneuvering the tiny helicopter in and around the sealed fortress of tree trunks, looking for angles and light.
Inside the fairy ring, the dancers were moving through sequences, improvising, perfecting their positions and foot placements across the uneven “stage.” It had been easier to dance and film in the Sierra Nevada Mountains among the sequoias, where the climate is drier and the protean trees dominate the entire ecosystem. Among the shady, humid redwood groves, the undergrowth is thicker and there is little negative space. And yet it is these limitations imposed by nature that came to define Megaflora’s visual and creative leitmotif. Everything from lighting and framing to the specific dance techniques and narrative arc of the film was designed in response to and in concert with distinctive elements within the natural environment, leaving no performative separation between the actor, the story, and the stage.
Dino recalls a day when they were filming in Sequoia National Park. Many of the sequoias were charred and some had fallen, and they decided to do an experiment. “We looked for four distinct elements in the landscape and asked the dancers to develop a movement study of an interaction with their landscape. So Jaime started sliding down this massive log he was standing on.” Dino was struck by the resemblance to Michael tumbling down the sand dunes just one year earlier at Sleeping Bear Dunes. But what he saw wasn’t just the interplay between dancer and natural environment; he realized that if you could “systematize it, it can become a new language borne out of an interaction with the landscape.”
Megaflora was envisioned and produced in such a way that the protagonists—nature, forest fires, climate change, the dancers—are at once the chorus, actors, stage, and backdrop. Within this construct, the audience finds itself allied with a bitter, ugly antagonist. The audience is, after all, humanity—with all our insatiable greed and unmitigated narcissism. This is where Megaflora is most audacious. It lays our willful ignorance, our addictions, our entitlement, our sense of propriety over the earth completely bare, and without needing to splice in a single scene of a smokestack, or a trash heap, or a cityscape. It’s all revealed in a human body tumbling gracefully down the charred trunk of a fallen sequoia.
“But our main work,” says Michael, “is finding the intersection of dance, music, community, site analysis, interviews, and performance art in the context of land stewardship. I hope a scientist will come and see our performance and be opened up to the possibility that arts and sciences can merge. How dance can be a beautiful art form and a useful partner to scientists, or vice versa.”
Make no mistake, Megaflora is political and it’s partisan. But it’s also a rejection of the hostile Right-Left binary that divides the American political landscape. The narrative of the film is driven by experts from unrelated, yet increasingly entwined fields of knowledge who help illustrate the complex, symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment. The audience hears the accounts of Indigenous representatives from communities along the Pacific Coast, wilderness firefighters, ecologists, loggers, park rangers, and longtime residents whose homes or property have gone up in flames.
An experimental documentary film-based artwork that blends modern dance, environmental science, field reportage, and Nature’s wordless narrative—none of this was part of the plan when Michael and Dino left New York early on in the pandemic. “I dove out of the plane head first with a parachute that probably partially works,” says Michael. Little did he know that a year and a half later he’d find himself pushing the boundaries of a nascent form of visual Magical Realism.