The Beautiful Earth


People are always asking Kenji Williams if he had the opportunity to travel to space, would he? The answer to that somewhat obvious question is “absolutely.”

But what would he do once he got there?

“Perform a concert,” he shared in a phone interview.

Williams is the creator of Bella Gaia, a concert-dance performance-presentation-film that he agrees is best described as an experience. After a New York screening, he agreed to chat with us about the project, which we happen to have a special connection to because a version of it is currently available on…Channel One Connection.

Bella Gaia began after Williams, a filmmaker, composer and violinist, met NASA astronaut Mike Fincke. When Fincke spoke about living on the space station for six months, Williams explained, he experienced something known as “The Overview Effect.”

It’s the idea that people, when seeing our planet from space, or even from high enough in the sky, experience an epiphany that suddenly renders everyday experiences and things like society national borders somewhat trivial. Those who have experienced this describe a sudden need to protect the earth — blue and fragile and floating in space — above all else.

After hearing Fincke describe the phenomena, Williams wondered if he somehow found a way to creatively replicate that impression, if others would have the same “transformative experience” without having to blast off. He soon started work on Bella Gaia.

In 2007, he was invited to present an early version of the show at NASA. The scientists there are used to seeing remarkable images from space in their work. But after seeing those same everyday-to-them images, huge, and set to music, they were “floored.” It was something, perhaps, of The Overview Effect.

“Science,” Williams explained “needs to be engaging. Using the right brain and the left brain [together] helps people to learn. Art can provide context to engage emotions and prompt creativity.” During that visit to NASA, he found a “champion” in Valerie Casasanto and he gradually began to meet more people there that were able to be a part of the development of Bella Gaia. Now, thanks to an education grant from NASA, he has created a new version of the the program called Beautiful Earth. It combines the study of earth science with Native American storytelling and data visualization and will be performed at schools and science centers around the country for the next three years.

Williams is also working on planetarium version that will be available in the fall. Another goal is to eventually bring Bella Gaia to Broadway. Why all of the editions of the show? The experience is constantly updated. In New York, one section highlighted life in the city. At an outdoor screening in Texas, the audience was able to see the effect of the wildfires that the state has been dealing with — on an enormous scale. The local, and often headline-worthy, connections tend to give an audience a better opportunity to engage with the show and see themselves and their community reflected in it.

All of this leads to, of course, the environmental issues that the images naturally attest to. Whatever your personal perspective on climate change is, a look at the literal big picture can be an eye opener. Watching the polar ice expand and contract or seeing fires burning in the Amazon illustrate the idea that, as Williams explains, “our actions affect other things.”

“We can affect and alter the environment. Resources on Earth are not limitless or free. My mission is to encourage an understanding of that and a deeper relationship with the planet.”

You can watch the Channel One edition of Bella Gaia on your classroom DVRs now — and you can find out where to see the show as it travels around the country here.

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