Astronomy has gone hand in hand with conservation and globalism since the early days of space exploration, from Buckminster Fuller’s Spaceship Earth to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. But there’s no surer way to gain perspective on our fragile, interconnected planet than by literally changing your perspective — by looking at the Earth not from the ground that stupid gravity has stuck us on, but from high above it.
It’s called the Overview Effect — the feeling that astronauts get when they rocket high above Earth’s atmosphere and turn around for the first time. “The first day or so, we all pointed to our countries,” Saudi Arabian astronaut Sultan bin Salman Al Saud said of his 1985 shuttle mission. “The third or fourth day, we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth.”
This is one of numerous quotes employed by Bella Gaia, a hybrid mini-planetarium show and live concert that turned the stage planetary at Brooklyn Bowl. Composer-violinist Kenji Williams collaborated with no less than NASA to put together an hour-long spectacle that mixes music, dance, immersive imagery and more than a few dire statistics.
Think of it as Cosmos live, sans Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s soothing baritone: Swooning, high-res videos of the planet seen both from space and up close combine with Williams’s violin, Kristin Hoffman’s vocals and keyboard, and Yumi Kurosawa on the koto, a complex Japanese string instrument. But they’re on the sidelines. The decided focused of Bella Gaia is on a big screen hung in the middle of the stage. On it, we’re treated to a trippy panoply of videos, photos, graphic simulations and facts about life on Earth. The curve of the planet as seen from the International Space Station, fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, kids playing along the Nile River, bustling Tokyo city scenes, time lapses of Mediterranean currents and retreating ice in the Antarctic: Scope is the name of the game here, as Williams and company attempt to re-create the Overview Effect for an audience of concertgoers.
A trio of dancers come into play during a few songs, performing sinuous bellydancing numbers before projected images of life along the Ganges River, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and time-lapse video of the burning sun. In one particularly affecting moment, visibly pregnant dancer Läle Sayoko gyrated in front of a slow zoom out of the Milky Way, at one point cupping the shadow of her hand around a tiny projection of the galaxy.
It’s these moments of sublimity when Bella Gaia transcends, but it’s hard to feel fully immersed when this is all going down twenty feet from an active bowling alley. Full focus is hard to achieve when a delicate koto solo gets broken up by the irregular crashing of pins. And though many of the more global, large-scale projections are aptly moving, Bella Gaia loses some of its mojo when it gets too close to Earth; scenes of cherry tree petals falling into a Koi pond could have come straight out of a karaoke bar filler video. The music itself is almost an afterthought, support for the visual spectacle unfolding at center stage. And though it is lovely to watch these musicians at work, particularly Kurosawa plucking the twenty-stringed koto, Bella Gaia’s meandering, Enya-esque compositions probably wouldn’t stand on their own in a regular old concert.
Rough spots aside, it’s hard not to leave Bella Gaia’s performance at least a little moved by the plight of the planet. There’s a distinctly environmentalist message here, culled from NASA data that Williams described at the end of the show as “an MRI of our Earth.” In “Biosphere Pulse” and “The Anthropocene,” the video focuses on mankind’s impact on the Blue Marble, and spoiler alert: It isn’t the good kind. Clear visuals tell a story of the oil we consume, the trees we burn, the glaciers we melt, and human development, that, seen from space, looks less like progress and more like an infection on the skin of the planet.
Unless you’re on some very lovely drugs, you probably won’t get the Overview Effect from Bella Gaia’s earnest but modest spectacle. But by casing facts and figures in an audiovisual display, Bella Gaia does gets its message across. People are much more likely to pay attention to trilling violins and large-scale imagery than to a lecture on PBS.