The click of a hair curler and a spritz of hairspray punctuated conversation in the small side room of Monarch Watch, a conservation project based at the University of Kansas. Normally home to a display of tarantulas, the room on Friday was transformed into a dressing room for New York-based dancer Gwynedd Vetter-Drusch, who wore a black unitard decorated with sequins. In one corner of the room were the vividly-colored orange and black silk butterfly wings that would complete her metamorphosis.
Vetter-Drusch was in Lawrence to help Monarch Watch director Chip Taylor promote National Pollinator Week with a dance in the research center's butterfly gardens.
Given the location, the conversation naturally turned to butterflies as Jodine Romano, a Topeka based-stylist, chatted with Vetter-Drusch as she worked on her hair and makeup. Romano told Vetter-Drusch that she was working with a conservation group to restore a history cemetery in Topeka. Vetter-Drusch replied, "My first memorable experience with monarchs happened in a cemetery."
A tree shimmering with monarchs
As a girl, growing up in rural Iowa, Vetter-Drusch recalled being drawn to a tree in the cemetery. The lower branches of the trees were shimmering with monarchs. Though it was the middle of summer, the leaves had turned from green to orange.
"I walked down and I pulled one of the branches down gently and let it spring back, and 200 monarchs flew in the air, all around me. That was really my first major experience with monarchs," said Vetter-Drusch. "That launched my interest in their migration and what they do, and what extraordinary creatures they are.
"In that first interaction with monarchs, the fact that I was studying dance at the time, but in that experience, I was very curious about monarchs. The way they move is very dance-like, so that's the connection right there."
Dance-like movements of butterflies
Vetter-Drusch returned to the Midwest concerned by the decline in monarch numbers. It was a headline in The New York Times this spring that caught her eye: "Monarch Migration Plunges to Lowest Level in Decades." She contacted Taylor at Monarch Watch to see if there might be a way for her to raise awareness about the butterflies that inspired her as a girl.
"My life has kind of taken a certain direction and I had been wrapped up work and then it was like the monarchs burst back into my life," said Vetter-Drusch. "In reading that article I was deeply disturbed. I had trouble going to sleep. I thought, 'Wow, what if when I'm 60 or 70 years old, what if the monarchs are gone? What if my children never have the kind of experience I had?'"
That night Vetter-Drusch had a vision of a dancer in flight wearing fabric wings. "Not only do the movements of the butterflies have a dance-like quality, but they do this intricate choreography in the process of pollination," said Vetter-Drusch. "And all pollinators, they perform specific steps. As Chip has said, 75 percent of plant species are reliant upon pollination, so they perform a vital dance, the dance of life, the process of pollination."
Reaching a different audience and raising awareness through dance
Taylor knocked on the door as Vetter-Drusch was preparing for her performance. "How is it coming along?" asked Taylor. "Wow, that looks good."
"We abstracted the white spots," said Vetter-Drusch. "We took a few of the monarch markings and our costumer had a little fun abstraction with that."
"One of the really nice things about having Gwynedd here today is that we have an opportunity to see if through various media, things like Facebook, and YouTube, and various exchanges people have these days whether we can reach a different audience," said Taylor. "It will be interesting to see and I think it will be fun."
But Taylor said the issues at stake are serious.
"If you look at some of the most intense agriculture in this country, you begin to be quite concerned. We have counties in Western Kansas in which there is virtually no natural habitat left, because it is all consumed by farming," he said. "You go through Central Illinois and there's huge areas where there is virtually no natural habitat for bird, bees, virtually anything. The habitat is corn and it is soybeans and that's it. We can do better than that. We have to do better than that."