Taking Shakespeare for a swim: A Q&A with Michele Oka Doner

World-renowned artist Michele Oka Doner is well attuned to the rhythms of Miami. Born and raised on Miami Beach, she traipsed the island before the big hotels went up, and draws much of her inspiration from the natural world there.

The daughter of a former Miami Beach mayor, Doner, now a New York City resident, is back to unveil the set and costume design she did for the Miami City Ballet’s performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening tonight. She’ll also open an exhibit of her work at PAMM next week.

If you’ve passed through Miami International Airport and looked down, you already know her. She designed 1.5 miles of walkways there that depicts sea creatures, shells, and ocean plants in sparkling, eye-catching swirls.

Miamians will certainly recognize our surrounding in her work – and in tonight’s set, where she’s reimagined the English forest setting of the ballet as an underwater forest and many of the dancers as sea creatures.

We spoke with Doner about her Miami roots, how they show up in her work, and how she feels knowing the seas are rising on her hometown.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Miami Beach has probably changed a lot since your childhood.

Miami Beach is more built up, that’s true.. more traffic that’s true, but the things that are elemental, the waves going up on the beach and retreating, up and back, that used to be lull me into a kind of meditative state on summer afternoons, that’s still there. The silhouette of the palms of the evening against the changing sky, darkening sky, that’s still there. The feeling of immersion into the salt water when I go swimming, that’s there.

And if I turn my eyes away from the strip of buildings, of hotels, and I look the other way and I see the horizon, the sense of infinity that it projects, that’s still there. The sound of the birds, you hear one right now, that’s still there. My eyes go into the limestone, it finds shapes and forms from 10,000 years ago when we had our last incident of climate change.

I always had a sense of time, of what I would call geologic time. I understood by looking at the stone that life had come before me. I understood the variety of life, living things, and I also think I understood that everything comes to an end. I also understood how beautiful it was. I think all of those understandings inform my work. When you’re young, you learn to speak in words and images. It gave me a language, South Florida.

What about the set for A Midsummer Night’s Dream makes it a Miami set?

It’s completely taken from the waters that surround us, 100 percent from this land and this place. [In ballet] we see English forests, Russian courts, but no one has referenced Miami in this way. It’s time that Miami is cherished and lauded for its beautiful natural environment. Especially now that we understand how threatened it is. It’s time for us to wake up and see what we have.

I think art makes us more conscious and more aware of our inner life and our hopes and dreams. This is what the Greeks taught us, to appreciate what we have… it’s an extraordinary endowment that has brought us to this moment, when someone born in Miami can approach Shakespeare written in England, Mendelssohn [who wrote the score] written in Germany, Balanchine [who choreographed the ballet] in Russian. Look at those coming together.

What are some specific inspirations for the set design?

There is a woman named Nancy Voss at the Rosenstiel School at UM. She came in 1951 as a student and fell in love with her professor and they started to troll the water and collect. There are now 90,000 specimen jars in the marine center. I went there to get some captions for a book and then noticed her world was extraordinary and asked for permission to look around. Then I asked if I come back with a camera. A year later, 2005 or 2006, I photographed about 300 specimens. When Lourdes Lopez [the artistic director of Miami City Ballet] asked me to reimagine the ballet, I was able to draw on that work.

You were also invited to create a piece of artwork for the Miami International Airport. Tell me more about doing that project.

The Miami airport was really on many levels a delightful endeavor. To imagine people arriving and not knowing Miami except for Miami Vice and Art Deco buildings and drugs, the world was informed by Cocaine Cowboys, Scarface, and Miami Vice what we were about. But I didn’t feel that was what we were about. It provided me with an opportunity to extol the beauty of Miami to visitors.

Secondly it allowed me to return to the beach and walk it and say ‘“This would be great” [for the piece]. For 20 years, I was able to indulge in looking and seeing it almost as a poem… It’s like poetry in that you can put the essence of things next to each other and not be so literal. I felt like a bard.

The iPhone came out [around the same time it was finished]. I got lots of images [from friends writing] “I’m standing in the galaxy!”  The most exciting was Ocean Drive. At their 8th anniversary, they did eight wonders of Miami, and it was No. 1.

To reach that kind of broad audience, it was so sweet. The community has really embraced the work. I hear many times [from native Miamians] that coming to Miami, they feel right at home upon landing on the floor.

You’re so attuned to the natural world here. How do you feel when you think about sea level rise?

If you look historically it’s a natural process. The fact that it’s been accelerated at this point is neither here nor there. The reality is that it’s come upon us. We are the first generation to have computer generated models.  Our understanding is unique in terms of the history of mankind, to be able to look ahead. What comes with understanding is responsibility and I want to see this community rise to that occasion. I want to see that understanding embraced. I’m concerned about a Katrina-like event, something happening from which there’s no turning back, like in Japan with the nuclear power plant in a tsunami zone. They’re still suffering, it’s still leaking.

I’m concerned about Turkey Point [which has been leaking pollution into Biscayne Bay]. We have known about this. This has been public, this is not new, this is already several years of understanding. My question is “What is it going to take to have people pay attention in a more fundamental and profound way?”

This city is still having a good time and people come here to have a good time and I understand that. That said, I am looking to the leadership. What do we have leaders for? We have leaders to help the community come together for a higher purpose, and I’m waiting.

It’s going to be costly and uncomfortable and inconvenient. It is certainly stalled in the state government. With Rick Scott, you’re not allowed to say the words [climate change]. These things, to me they are irresponsible and actions need to be called up for what they are. You can’t have a leader who won’t open his eyes and look at what’s in front of him. Placing the ballet underwater and into this wonderful world of Nancy Voss, it was a call to look at and celebrate what we have before we lose it, before it’s too late.

You wrote a book about the founding families of the Beach. Tell me a bit about what it was like back then.

It was a small town. Everyone knew everybody else, everyone knew everybody’s family. People had parents, grandparents living with them. It was safe. I could walk by myself to school and back. No one worried. There were empty lots to play in.

The Beach isn’t that old. Those families, they shaped a new city. We know that city changed fundamentally when Fidel Castro came to power. Now we are an international city and we are the capital of Latin America really. We’re no longer focused on a group of families who sifted down from New York and Chicago and other places. We are one of these international places like Casablanca used to be. So it’s different.

What remains the same? What’s changed?

There’s a tree that I climbed and played in, it’s now in the golf course on 28th Street. That tree was in a sense a second home. If I was playing and it started to rain, I could go under that tree. I once used the leaves to make a dress for a costume party I went to as Eve. I recently collected the roots, inked them up and made beautiful bodies [figurines].

I sit on the beach and bring my reading and I look at the ocean, I hear the sound of it, I watch the seagulls fight over scraps, I see the pelicans come in late afternoon for feeding. I go in the water, I dip down until my eyes are at the edge and I see that strip of lavender that somehow happens between the water and the sky when you look at it that way. That I remember doing as a child.

The biggest change are the jellyfish. I swam here for 60 years without ever being stung and now you can’t go in the water ¾ of the year. That’s because the jellyfish would lay their eggs and the baby turtles would eat them, but now the sea turtles are gone and jellyfish have proliferated beyond their natural state of being. That purple flag is out all the time. That’s not good.

I used to go to the Everglades to go kayaking. Now there are too many boa constrictors. Nature has been pushed out of whack here, no doubt. What’s happening is curtailing one’s ability to enjoy [life here], but I’m still hoping somehow some leadership comes that allows us to move in anticipation and not become another New Orleans. And I say New Orleans, not Sandy [the superstorm that hit New York in 2012] because in New Orleans, they knew those levees wouldn’t hold. They knew it was inevitable. New York didn’t understand its vulnerability.