Magazine

The Science Experiment

What’s behind the growing scientific curiosity among choreographers?

 

 

Rehearsals for Gilles Jobin’s Quantum, created at CERN (3). Photos by Grégory Batardon, Courtesy Jobin.

 

A bespectacled man draws a line in mid-air, as if extending a string from his chest. He retracts his hands, cupping them in front of his sternum, and flutters his fingers. With the flourish of one palm, he circumscribes an invisible sphere: elegant, swift, precise. You might almost mistake him for a dancer.

 

In fact, he’s a physicist, one of several featured in Three Views of the Higgs and Dance, a short film created by Emily Coates and Sarah Demers at CERN, the world’s largest particle laboratory, near Geneva, Switzerland. As colleagues at Yale University, Coates, the director of the dance studies program, and Demers, a professor of physics, have teamed up in recent years to examine dance through the lens of physics and vice versa. The body language of researchers describing the Higgs boson—the elusive subatomic particle discovered at CERN in 2012—caught Coates’ choreographic eye.

 

“It’s like finding a trove of new sea life or something,” she says, laughing. “The repertoire of gestures is innovative, continually changing and, to my mind, doing a lot of work in terms of how discoveries in that field get pushed forward.”

 

The collaboration between Coates and Demers, who have also developed a cross-disciplinary course at Yale called The Physics of Dance, is just one example of dance-science projects that seem to be proliferating lately, from Gilles Jobin’s 2013 Quantum, also created at CERN, to Jody Oberfelder’s participatory study of the human heart, 4Chambers, staged at a former hospital in Brooklyn earlier this year. In the past five years, artists from Jonah Bokaer to Miguel Gutierrez to Wayne McGregor have peered into the science of the brain, exploring memory and perception in relation to movement. Last fall in London, McGregor gathered more than a decade’s worth of his science-inspired research into a gallery exhibition, Thinking with the Body. That title might resonate with Jennifer Monson, another choreographer whose work has long bridged science and dance. And don’t forget Karole Armitage, who tackled relativity, string theory and quantum mechanics in her 2010 Three Theories and whose next production, premiering at the Museum of Natural History this spring, addresses global warming.

 

The heart, the mind, the planet, the universe; realms both too small and too large to imagine: It’s no wonder choreographers are drawn from the studio to subjects more often examined in the lab. If a dancemaker’s most basic materials are the body, space and time, science offers ways of newly understanding and shaping all three.

 

Gilles Jobin, who is based in Switzerland, notes that while he has observed a growing scientific curiosity among choreographers, it’s not a passing craze. “I think it’s more than a trend,” he says. “Our world is increasingly fragmented, and we have a different mental picture of how things are organized around us.” As technology and science grow more entwined with our daily lives, art reflects that. And scientists need artists, too. As Jobin says, “We can teach them different ways of thinking. Artists tend to go around problems in very original ways.”

 

Of course, “dance” and “science” are massive fields that could interact in as many ways as there are species of sea life. As one of the first participants in Collide@CERN, a residency program founded in 2011 to support artist-scientist exchanges, Jobin turned to science for structure, using principles of particle physics to devise movement.

 

“I wanted to find systems where the dancers could generate their own choreography in a very precise way—like rules of a game,” he says. “Particle physics is a lot about interactions and collisions, and I thought that inside those I could find some system to apply to our scale.” That approach didn’t quite pan out. “The problem with particle physics is you’re talking about the smallest of the small,” he adds, “and the rules that apply on that scale have nothing to do with the rules we apply on our scale.” But his conversations with physicists unveiled other ideas—about gravity and electromagnetism, for instance—that gave rise to choreographic devices. He stresses that Quantum, for six dancers, is not about physics. (“You’re not going to learn anything about particle physics by looking at it.”) Science is a means to the end of dance.

 

For others, like Jennifer Monson, the opposite is true: Dance is, among many things, a prism through which to appreciate the natural world. In BIRD BRAIN, developed with environmental scientists between 2000 and 2006, Monson followed the migratory routes of birds and gray whales across large stretches of space and time. BIRD BRAIN: Ducks and Geese Migration, for example, took her from Texas to Minnesota over 10 weeks, with around 30 site-specific, outdoor performances along the way. That investigation continues to inform her current project, Live Dancing Archive.

 

“I found that dance itself is a research tool for understanding the relationships in ecosystems,” says Monson, who was interested in biology from a young age. “When I’m dancing in a landscape, I sense that my body is able to generate knowledge about time and scale and space on multiple levels; it has this knowledge about geologic time, plant time, animal time and the relationship between those. It’s a kind of embodied knowledge that’s different from just collecting data and analyzing it.”

 

Right: Jennifer Monson’s BIRD BRAIN: Ducks and Geese Migration performance in Minneapolis. Photo by Cameron Wittig, Courtesy Walker Art Center.

 

For the audience, too, BIRD BRAIN wasn’t so much about dance itself. “I was really thinking of the dancing as a vehicle to experience the environment,” Monson says.

 

Other artists choose to zoom in on the science of the human body. In 4Chambers, Jody Oberfelder used interactive movement, installation and video to heighten participants’ awareness of their own beating hearts. That inspired her next project, still in progress, about the brain. “I’m thinking of it as a choreographed experience for people to learn more about how their mind makes connections,” she says, “how the society of your brain interacts with the society of the world.”

 

Behind every dance-science collaboration is the potential for creative breakthroughs, the kind that can only come from a fresh perspective on one’s own field. In 2004, Monson established iLAND (the Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Art, Nature and Dance) to encourage what she calls “hybrid processes” between life scientists and movement artists. All are encouraged to delve into the others’ methods and practices: Choreographers dissect fish; botanists dance. “We talk a lot about how exciting it is to be a beginner at one thing when you’re an expert at something else,” Monson says.

 

At Yale, Coates and Demers similarly keep disciplines in flux. Their Physics of Dance course—and the forthcoming textbook they’re co-authoring based on their curriculum—involves as much movement as math, both in and out of the classroom. One unit, for instance, “looks at angular momentum and torque in relation to the ways in which Balanchine, as if he were a physicist, really brilliantly altered the pirouette,” Coates says.

 

Above: Emily Coates and Sarah Demers lead a workshop: “Discovering the Higgs through Physics and Dance.“ Photo by Mike Marsland, Courtesy Coates.

 

“When we started planning the course,” says Demers, “one of our basic principles was to place physics and dance on equal footing, meaning we wouldn’t use dance to teach physics exclusively or vice versa. We were interested in diving into both disciplines with real integrity.

 

“That said,” she adds, “I haven’t found a better way to teach concepts like Newton’s Third Law, the idea that anytime two things are in contact, they give each other equal and opposite force. It’s a very tricky, counterintuitive thing, and this class was the first time I felt like it really clicked. It was obvious that working through these ideas with your body was incredibly powerful in getting an intuition for the science.”

 

 

Siobhan Burke is a dance critic for The New York Times.

The Conversation
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?

—Anonymous

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
News
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
News
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Tan Li Min working with Queensland Ballet dancer Lou Spichtig. Photo by Jovian Lim, Courtesy Cloud & Victory

Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.

Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.

She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Alia Kache in rehearsal with Ballet Memphis. Photo by Louis Tucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis

The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Maddie Ziegler will play one of the Jets. (photo by Lucas Chilczuk)

This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:

We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.

Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Youth America Grand Prix alumna Michaela DePrince. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP

Since its inception in 1999, Youth America Grand Prix has grown to have an outsize impact on the ballet world, with more than 450 alumni now dancing with 80 companies across the globe.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Jesse Obremski captivates as a freelancer for many NYC–based troupes. Photo by Roi Lemayh, Courtesy Gibney Dance Company

At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Photo by @FullOutCreative

Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.

In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been on a crying jag since I sprained my ankle for the third time. It kills me that I can't dance my favorite roles. I'm also disgusted with myself for being a crybaby.

—Maggy, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michael Parmalee/FX

It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.

But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.

"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox