A planet worth saving

Multi-visual Bella Gaia delivers a perspective on the beauty — and human-caused tragedy — of Planet Earth

By Linda Pentz Gunter

This week, Karl Grossman’s story reminds us that dangerous political leaders like Donald Trump, choose to see space as a venue for warfare. As an antidote, therefore, we also bring you a powerful reminder of why that must never happen.

Several years ago I attended a performance of Bella Gaia. Performance is really the wrong word. Immersion would be closer, transformative experience even better. Bella Gaia is the inspiration of New York violinist Kenji Williams, and his inspiration came in turn from astronauts who went to outer space and experienced the “overview effect,” a quasi-religious epiphany that occurred on seeing planet Earth from afar and in the context of its home within the vast universe.

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Violinist, Kenj Williams, creator of Bella Gaia, in performance. (Photo: Christopher Altman/Creative Commons.)

Despite his collaboration with NASA, whose breathtaking images he uses, Williams has not put together just another planetarium show. It is a multi-media experience, combining music, dance, other-worldly vocals and a lesson in just how dangerous and damaging our ever worsening human behavior is becoming for Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth). 

Williams has a mission with his music, and that is to help transform people’s thinking about important global issues, as he told Evan Thompson in an article in the Edmonds Herald.

“I really wanted to create an experience that transformed people,” Williams said. “There needs to be a new emphasis and value in emotional connections to very abstract things, like climate change.”

Ideally, Williams likes to hold Bella Gaia in a planetarium, where you can get the full effect of virtual space travel. But inside even a traditional auditorium where I experienced it, Bella Gaia, sweeps you away on a gorgeous wave of music, dance, and powerful visuals.  

At first, we are thrust into the beauty and majesty of the Earth and the universe. But gradually, we start to see more disturbing visuals showing the terrible impact of human activities. There is air and sea traffic — like swarms of ants criss-crossing the skies and oceans — population explosion and pollution. Fires in the Amazon spark at us like a million embers in a perpetually burning hearth. A soothing scene of cherry blossoms in Japan, accompanied by Yumi Kurosawa on the koto (Japanese harp), shifts to sped up sequences of Tokyo traffic and then to the Fukushima accident and the nuclear plume it sends out across the Pacific ocean.

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Active fires in the Amazon/Bella Gaia. (Photo: Christopher Altman/Creative Commons.)

The soundtrack blends the ethereal voice of singer and pianist Kristin Hoffmann with Williams on violin, Deep Singh on percussion, Premik Tubbs on saxophone, Kurosawa’s koto and other instrumentation depending on the night. Dancers come and go, representing different cultures, swirling like clouds of colorful nebulae. Even while we fend off despair at the terrible destruction we have wrought on our home, the dancers and music remind us of our deep cultural contributions, a diversity as rich as the myriad fish Williams shows us on screen as they ply our ever more plastic-polluted oceans.


The soaring purity of Kristin Hoffmann’s voice is part of the soundtrack to Bella Gaia. (Photo: Christopher Altman/Creative Commons)

Bella Gaia’s website describes it best: “A visceral flow of unencumbered beauty manifests for all the senses by combining supercomputer data-visualizations from NASA, high-fidelity orbital views of Earth, cultural photography, and stirring LIVE performances of music and dance from around the world, with an ‘iridescent landscape of gossamer melodies and labyrinthine rhythms’ (Nooga.com) to create the ‘Sublime’ and ‘Out of This World’ experience (Village Voice, USA Today).”

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The dancers in Bella Gaia remind us of our rich multiculturalism. (Photo: Christopher Altman/Creative Commons)

The effect of Bella Gaia is moving and, in some ways, heartbreaking. It also serves as a perspective-setter, a reminder that Earth matters, that we are all (over-)crowded on here together. It reinforces in those of us who already oppose it, the need to stop fighting each other in deadly wars and conflicts. It may help inspire those already engaged on climate change and nuclear threats to do more. But we must also hope Bella Gaia will reach those still sitting on the sidelines, and move and inspire them to join us. Surely, all of us together can save our beautiful Earth?

Headline photo of ocean currents and temperature from Bella Gaia courtesy of Christopher Altman/Creative Commons.

To find a Bella Gaia performance near you, visit the website.

And also see this short film, The Overview Effect.


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