Amelia Nommensen’s Upwelling makes the ocean matter

Words by Maxine Flasher-Duzgunes.

I too grew up with the ocean – weekends of sweet treats melting off our mouths while a salty sting rose up our ankles. But throughout my childhood I learned that not everyone cared for the sea like I did – whenever we visited the city beaches they reeked of leftovers from barbeques, cigarette butts, and warped aluminum cans. Signs would warn not to take off your shoes to protect your feet from the glass shards. Those days I barely made it to the water. And after that, I never wanted to come back. 

When I first came across director Amelia Nommensen’s work, I noticed an equal attention to the ocean and the bodies on the shore who can work to make a difference. Last month, I witnessed her third iteration of Upwelling, a multimedia performance utilizing dance, poetry, and film at the Convergence Arts Center in San Jose, California. 

Upon walking into the space, it captures the aura of a coastal gallery one might find along a footpath in the enchanting town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. Illuminated aquamarine jellyfish lanterns line the shelves with small wooden slabs engraved with the words “please keep our beaches clean.” The bright walls, the jugs of water at center stage, and the cool white linens coordinate everyone’s entrance into a sort of meditation. Even the little ones who attend can settle into the sounds of the sea and Nommensen’s gentle pouring of water from one jar to the next. 

Two dancers, Annalise Constanz and Abigail Hinson, enter the stage conjoined like twin buoys hip-to-hip, rocking to the sea’s calm undertows and the distant clanging of sails against the masts of ships. Then emerges the eerie dissonance of whale calls, from miles apart uniting into a symphonic lull. The dancers are joined by Nommensen and Erica Stivison, each of them lighting their lanterns and swaying them forward and back like the soft blue caress of ebbtide. The four of them both gather as one and linger alone in their deep-sea undulations, like the ceaseless evolution of kelp forests as each strand is pushed out and pulled back in. Together the quartet presents the image of tossed sea glass underneath the waves, as if they are the crystals of forgotten bottles sifting through a torn shore. But they teach us through movement and prayer that our relationship to the sea can be revitalised. 

Constanz introduces us to the dance of sea foam, her ivory skirt parachuting like the curl and break of incoming waves. Her feet rippling to the sounds of the rising tide, she is the ode to childhood, to playing in the surf. We hear a chime, the water a singing bowl of everything we hope the ocean can be for us. “And yet I swear I see blue skies / trying to pop out overhead / the train moves by / light begins to reflect on the / water,” reads Nommensen’s poem in the program, a reminder that wherever one looks – even if into the past – there can be beauty.

Towards the latter half of the work, a dancer manipulates a giant puppet jellyfish over the audience, tickling the tops of heads and the fingers of those curious to reach out and touch. I sense a linkage now between land and sea, the linens airborne in each dancer’s hand like the white caps we see when we squint hard enough. “There must be light somewhere / for this to happen,” continues the poem. 

Nommensen’s work urges the viewer that the ocean matters, and that we beach-comb to make gardens out of the sand but also to clear out what doesn’t belong. The marine soundtrack designed by Joe Krempetz guides us through both serene and energizing states, animating this unseen world with a strong desire to preserve it. 

Post-performance, there is a screening of Nommensen’s past film iterations of Upwelling, familiar choreographies shot along the central California coastline. (All of these beaches are referenced inside the miniature flasks of sand distributed to attendees at the beginning of the performance). Ceramic sculptures of Nommensen’s grapefruit sailboats are also displayed, tokens of the earth riding happy-go-lucky throughout the unknowns of the sea. 

I’m drawn again to Nommensen’s poem as a form of flight over a continent ravaged by climate change, especially its oceans which recently flooded Highway 1 and almost the entirety of Pájaro Valley between Santa Cruz and Monterey earlier this year. “The train moves and moves / then comes to a stop / waits / then begins in reverse.” Perhaps the only way to make peace with our earth is to stop fighting the storm, wait for that period of calm, then begin slowly again, differently than before. 

News about Upwelling and more of Nommensen’s work can be found on her site: and her Instagram: Header image by Douglas Calalo Berry.