Thursday, 7 October 2010


A dance piece, conversation, floor show, game show and a chance to meet big minds. That’s how MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ fellow and award-winning american choreographer, Liz Lerman bills her latest multi-media piece, ‘The Matter of Origins’. As the title playfully suggests, physics is the main partner for this new work, with dancers making equations with their bodies and pushing gravity to the limits.

But that’s not all. Physics also provides the intellectual framework on which the whole piece hangs. For one hour, in a fusion of dance and physics, dancers both old and young, spin, leap, fall, balance and re-balance through critical moments of atomic and sub-atomic history: Marie Curie and the discovery of radium, the Manhatten project, the Large Hadron Collider at CERN and the Hubble telescope.

These historical moments also provide the stunning visuals for the scenery too – with the vast swathes of the New Mexico desert surrounding Los Alamos and a video tour of the LHC at CERN projected into the dance space. ‘The Matter of Origins’ is a fusion between the ideas of physics with the physical possibilities - and impossibilities - of dance. The normally reticent Washington Post critically acclaimed the world premiere at the University of Maryland, USA, this September as ‘a work of expansive range, emotional depth and singular beauty.’

The story of how this partnership between dance and physics happened was a total surprise, even to the choreographer. It began with a chance encounter between Liz Lerman, who has run her own dance company Dance Exchange since 1976, with Gordy Kane, a physicist at the University of Michigan and director of the Michigan Centre for Theoretical Physics. He knew that she was interested in science and the impact it has on the way people think about themselves, having seen her previous work ‘Ferocious Beauty: Genome’ which examined the nature of discovery and the implications of research into genetics.

He captivated her interest this time in physics, by telling her about the search for the origins of the universe at CERN, and the mysteries of dark matter. So she came with her company of dancers to CERN for a few weeks in 2007 and then in 2008 to explore making a piece, speaking to the scientists about their ideas, and even dancing in the LHC tunnels and work spaces. And so the beginning of ‘The Matter of Origins’ project was born, and in the process she started discovering many unusual and quirky facts of the history of physics, which appear insignificant but which also nevertheless find their way into her piece.

For example, the extraordinary story of Edith Warner who has hired by Robert Oppenheimer when he was director of Los Alamos to feed the physicists. She ran the Los Alamos tea house, serving her special chocolate cake to amongst others, a scientist she knew as Doctor Baker, but who was in fact Niels Bohr. The audience at the ‘Matter of Origins’ is literally invited to chew over this fact – and many others, including Warner’s secret chocolate cake recipe – because when the dance has finished in Act One, in Act Two they are all unexpectedly swept into a room full of tea, tables and chocolate cake and asked to sit down. At each table is a host – or provacateur as Liz calls them, who is more often than not a physicist – who invites the audience to discuss what they experienced watching the dance piece, as well as the big science and its relation to society and the uncertainty principle and future possibilities. It is an extraordinary and exceptional bravura move which Liz easily explains:

“Act one is in the European terms a multi-media piece, with a video artist and animator as well as the dancers and the science. It is a lot for an audience to take in. In my last science-dance piece, I noticed that the audience lingered and stayed to discuss the piece far more than normal. They didn’t want a post performance discussion: they wanted to be the discussion.

So my idea was to make this happen, giving individuals the change to re-experience what they had just witnessed and to deepen their experience even further.”

Thus, between tea and talk, dancers weave between the tables too, adding yet more dimensions to this piece, including discussions about the uncertainty principle, which Liz says, in many ways, is where every artist stands. ‘For an artist it is always a question of finding momentum and of poise whilst in uncertainty.’

For all the discussion about the uncertainty principle, Liz is also adamant about another aspect of the dance and physics partnership which shows how they share common ground. It isn’t just in the intellectual footwork:

“The arts are the place which can help people find the place where they intersect with science. Awe, imagination and the grit to be relentless to make something work – that’s what scientists and artists both do. What is fascinating in both cases, is the relationships scientists and artists have to making mistakes - how we puzzle over them, and the obsession and passion which ensures that we get it right in the end.”

But as Liz’s piece shows, we may be merely at the beginning. Act Two ends with the beginning of Act One. The end has become a new beginning. Or perhaps it is just the beginning is never ending.

Note: This piece is being published in the next edition of the CERN Courier in November

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