Extinct species such as the great auk are in the spotlight at the California Academy of Sciences, and they’re not trapped in musty dioramas. They are being reanimated in “Extinction Burst: a dance of lost movement,” a new work by artist-in-residence Chris Black.
The piece debuts at the Academy’s NightLife program on Thursday, and continues with performances next week.
Black, an award-winning choreographer working in the Bay Area since 1992, became curious about the movements of such obscure animals. She wondered if humans could ever fully understand the musculature of another creature, let alone one that can’t be observed.
“There’s a mystery about these animals,” Black says. “The great auk spent most of its time in the water, but humans mostly only saw it on land. We don’t really know what it was doing most of the time. Questioning and imagining how they might have moved became a launching point for my choreography.”
Artist renderings of the great auk, hunted to extinction in the mid-19th century, show an awkward bird that looks like a hybrid of a penguin and a puffin. In her dance, Black evokes its movement, rather than make a caricature.
A passenger pigeon vignette in the piece was inspired by the words, rather than famous illustrations, of John James Audubon.
“Audubon’s writing made me think of the big sweeping movements of a large flock of birds,” says Black. “It came to be about creating movement patterns with dancers’ hands.”
Black, who was commissioned by ODC Theater, designed the work to be performed in sections, like on a record album. Composer Erik Pearson wrote a breakup-themed soundtrack, which references hits such as “One (Is the Loneliest Number)” and “It’s Too Late.”
“Songs about missing someone seemed appropriate for a work about creatures that are no longer here,” says Black.
Black, who rehearsed “Extinction Burst” during regular museum hours, has enjoyed working on the piece while visitors breeze in and out of the galleries. Not only has she had the luxury of practicing in the space where the performance will be, she also appreciates bystanders’ reactions.
“Being able to do the movement research in the building has been really great,” says Black. “It’s very easy to tell what’s working and what’s not, because as soon as you do something interesting to watch, people stop to look.”
IF YOU GO
‘Extinction Burst: A dance of lost movement’
Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. Tuesday and Sept. 29; 2 p.m. Sept. 22 and Sept. 27
Tickets: $10 to $12 Thursday only; $24.95 to $29.95 (included in museum admission)
Contact: (415) 379-8000; www.calacademy.org
Note: Thursday’s NightLife show is for visitors 21 and older.