Ideas to Help You Merge Science and Dance

March 18, 2009

Science and art:
Housed in opposite sides of the brain and different departments on a college campus, these fields may seem to have nothing in common. But is that really true? “[Science] is [an] investigative process that’s incredibly creative and so similar to art,” says Elizabeth Johnson, associate artistic director of Washington, DC–based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, which premiered Ferocious Beauty: Genome, an exploration of the complexity of genetics with regard to ancestry, aging and diversity, in March 2006 (the work will continue to tour throughout 2007). From Merce Cunningham’s groundbreaking use of the computer program DanceForms as a choreographic tool to Arizona State University’s motion-capture technology work with choreographers Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown, today’s dance world is more in tune with science and technology than ever before. Here, DS talks to two science-savvy companies about why they’ve chosen to bring science into their work and what strategies you can use to let it become your choreographic muse.


Try These Tactics


Do your homework:
Whatever the scientific topic, chances are you’ll learn something new by creating a dance about or in response to it. “You have to understand [the topic] in order to make a dance, and learning with an objective of making something out of it—that is inspired learning,” says Johnson, whose science-based works include The Sympathetic Nervous System, a solo inspired by the body’s “fight or flight” response, and The Menstrual Cycle Dance, a gesture-based mnemonic device created with students at Wesleyan University to help explain the complicated process behind the female body’s monthly cycle. Whether you’re browsing for new scientific studies, brushing up on your grade-school biology or honing in on a specific concept you’ve always wanted to learn more about, the internet is a great place to get started. Other possible sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, faculty at your high school or college and even the medical charts on the wall at your doctor’s office.


Investigate opportunities for collaboration:
Karola Luttringhaus, artistic director of Alban Elved Dance Company in Winston-Salem, NC, has spent the past five years pairing with scientists at Duke University and Wake Forest University for a series of projects, collectively titled Free Space, that merge technology and dance. Littringhaus was initially contacted by Duke University computer scientists looking to share their work on motion-sensor cameras and image projection with the outside community. “[Scientists] are fascinated by their work, [just as] we are fascinated by our work, but they never get to put theirs on stage,” she explains. “They don’t get to share their work with an audience.” The result of the first collaboration was 2002’s The Distance Between Things which used a circular camera array called Argus, made up of 64 cameras that, together, produce a three-dimensional image of the dancer in the circle’s center. In general, working together with those in scientific fields—whether it’s the physics club at your high school or the head of biology at a local university—can expand your choreographic possibilities and bring about beneficial new partnerships in your community. Additionally, works merging the two worlds tend to entice people who might not otherwise see dance—or keep up with scientific trends. “You get a varied audience from arts or science backgrounds, as well as people who are just curious to see what you’re doing, because they haven’t a clue of what it could be,” Luttringhaus says.


Dig beneath the surface:
The science behind feelings and experiences to find a new layer of inspiration. “If I were to go into the studio and say, ‘Okay my boyfriend just broke up with me. I’m going to make my sad dance,’ after using my first 10 sad movements, I’m going to get stuck,” Johnson says. However, researching the physiological processes behind feeling sad may introduce terms like “serotonin uptake” to your vocabulary, leading you in a new direction. If you can think of 10 movements in response to “up” and 10 more in response to “take,” then you’ve already surpassed your original attempt—and extended into new choreographic territory.


Start scientifically:
Instead of starting with an emotion and investigating the underlying scientific details, start with a scientific concept and branch out from there. For example, after discussing the five different types of memory, Teen Exchange, LLDE’s junior company for dancers ages 13 to 17, created The Body Remembers about unforgettable experiences in its members’ lives.


Use visual aids:
Charts, diagrams and graphs associated with everything from acid rain to the digestive system provide interesting shapes that can serve as movement patterns for your work.


Incorporate text:
Teen Exchange created a physiology-inspired work, Blood, Bones and Skin, that included spatial patterns based on the blood flow patterns of the heart. The piece was augmented by spoken text about what makes the dancers’ hearts race, break or drop. “It’s a text and movement piece that goes in between what’s going on in the world and our lives, and what’s going on inside of our bodies,” explains Johnson. “That’s what science does: It creates a large frame for us to be able to string our personal experiences.”


Work off of gestures:
Ask scientists to explain concepts or projects they’re working on and take note of how they move, consciously or unconsciously, while speaking about their work. Then, use their body language as choreographic fodder. “When we have to explain something, we move all the time,” Johnson says. “If you watch scientists who are creating their work, they are incredibly physical, too.”


Expect the Unexpected


New collaborations will inevitably present new challenges. In Alban Elved’s MiDi, for example, the dancers created a live sound score by moving through laser beam sensors extending across the stage, “like playing a laser harp,” explains Luttringhaus. Unfortunately, the vibrations of a sprung floor and the brightness of the stage lighting both affected the operation of the lasers. In the end, the lighting had to be adjusted and the dancers had to stay a certain distance away from the sensors while dancing in order to avoid setting them off accidentally. A given risk of working with equipment—especially new or experimental equipment—is that it can malfunction. “For performing artists, the show has to work every night all the time. [In the research setting,] a scientist doesn’t necessarily have to make his invention work each time; they have to prove it once and then write a paper about it,” says Luttringhaus. “So for them, that pressure [of live performance] is different.” Be prepared with patience and willingness to troubleshoot. Whether you’re inspired to spell out the word “photosynthesis” using your body, create formations from the patterns of migrating birds or give a social commentary on the ethics of human cloning, your dance ventures in science are sure to be an experiment yielding brand-new results.