Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Let's Get Physical - Dance and Physics

In 1987  the American choreographer Merce Cunningham premiered live at the City Theatre New York,  his piece ‘Points in Space’ originally made  for television.

Shown on the BBC the year before, and  deliberately choreographed for many cameras so that the one piece offers a  multiplicity of points of views, its title derives from  the physicist Albert Einstein’s remark in his theory of relativity  - ‘There are no fixed points in space.’  In this theory, the observed is not static, but is dependent on the point of view of the observer – the gaze of multiple cameras becoming a metaphor for this constant displacement of one organizing principle and gaze.

This constant movement led to ‘Points in Space’ being reviewed in the New York Times as ‘a piece of  ceaseless comings and goings, assemblies and dispersals’ – showing all the Cunningham hallmarks of displacing the linear plot driven narrative of traditional dance with a dynamic, non-hierarchical field in which cause and effect no longer govern the  movements in the performance. Instead the variety of displacements celebrates the singleness of any one moment(s) in time and space as experienced differently by individuals, even when in groups. The collective is always individual – however unified it may at first appear.

The piece’s title directly shows the influence  of physics and relativity in Cunningham’s use of chance and indeterminancy in his work  - not just the always talked about influence of the IChing and Taoism. At the liberal arts institution of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where Cunningham taught with his partner in life and arts,  the theorist and composer John Cage on and off between 1948-53, interdisciplinarity and the garnering of new ideas from different fields was part of every day life – so much so that even at meal times Cunningham remarked:

“You were just as likely to sit with the Physics School as anyone else. It was something where you gained by experience, by observing by listening and talking (quoted in Cunningham, Kirk, Goodman 1996)

The ideas of physics – how the universe came into being, what it is, and our place in it – is in fact the enquiry of the arts – so interdisciplinarity and exchange of ideas between  physics, the most philosophical of our sciences which looks at the how of existence, with the arts which  also looks at the why, is a natural partnership of mutual attraction and sincerity.

Now fast forward to the next century and the work of  the american dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage, who herself was part of the Cunningham Dance Company 1976-81 and  began her career as a dancer at the Grand Theatre de Geneve in the 1970s. Inspired by the physicist Brian Greene’s award winning popular book ‘The Elegant Universe’, Karole created the ballet ‘Three Theories’ for the 2010 World Science Festival in New York. She used the three key discoveries  in the twentieth century history of particle physics as the drivers for creating the vocabulary for her choreography – relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory.

From Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, she took his theories of gravity as the warping and twisting of the space-time fabric which keeps the universe in balance as the vocabulary for her movement.  

For Quantum Theory, as she said in interview ‘everything is completely full of juxtapositions and non sequiturs’  and she incorporated into this dance vocabulary a principle called sum-over-paths. This principle is that particles  in order to go from Point A to Point B take every possible path in 360 degree dimensions - they just don't go  straight in one line from A to B. So she made one phrase of movement, and then reinterpreted it in many diverse ways.

For String Theory, which states that the fundamental matter in the universe could be a vibrating string created by complicated geometries – she created great blocks of quivering movement -  ‘cloud-like formation of dancers’ within which identical movements or phrases were performed in very different ways, then built towards a ‘built-in feeling of resolution’  -  order emerging from disorder.

So  unquestionably the science of particle physics is an attractive source of ideas  for dance both in terms of theme and content as shown by the engagement  across two centuries of  such notable choreographers as Karole Armitage and Merce Cunningham. But  what is the basis of this attraction? That was the question which I was  also asked to address with this talk at this STEPS Symposium: in my case I am addressing with  exclusive reference to particle physics. It is the science I know and have loved - long before I  even created the  Collide@CERN artists residency programme which officially began at CERN in 2012 with our first two residents,  the  visual artist Julius von Bismarck and the swiss choreography Gilles Jobin.

There is one  main fundamental reason why particle physics and dance are so attracted to each other. Because in essence dance is physics and physics is dance. Physics is defined as the science which deals with matter, energy, motion and forces, and the interactions between them. Swap the word physics with that of dance, and science with the creative practice, and you get a working definition of dance  -  dance is the creative art form which deals with matter, energy, motion and forces, and the interactions between them  -  showing the shared core components of both disciplines. After all, what would dance be without its investigations through movement of the limits of matter (the human body) energy, motion, gravity forces, momentum and interactions?

In the movement of the human body, dance is physics embodied – a living moving, breathing  and quivering/trembling (the earliest etymology of  the word dance is from the old Frisian word dintje meaning quiver, tremble)  experiment in motion, energy and mass. After all E= mc 2 as Einstein said – but in dance it is expressed, recovered and discovered again  and again through the  human body.

So having a choreographer in residence at CERN  the world’s largest particle physics laboratory outside Geneva in 2012 seems entirely synergistic because the motivations of particle physics and dance make them natural partners.

Then one just looks at the investigations which particle physics makes and the ideas it throws up which provide key questions for choreographers and dancers alike.  For example, particle physics reveals that gravity is in fact the weakest force and the one of the forces which science knows the least about. Say that to a dancer and that is shocking: any notion of groundedness alters profoundly – and the ideas of the vertical and horizontal axis smashed to smithereens.

A physicist says that the very fact that you can lift your arm shows how weak gravity is – because if it was forceful, you wouldn't be able to lift it at all. It is electro-magneticism, not gravity which keeps you fixed down here on earth – not gravity. And electro-magneticism itself opens a whole new world of possibilities too, when you unpack its meaning with a physicists eye. It is a whole world of non-contact forces in which repulsion and attraction oscillate according to the constituent parts of matter – the further away you are, the more attracted you are.

Take another idea like that of the void – the empty space. Particle physics would say there is no such thing as empty space in the classical sense of the word – a place where nothing is happening. Quite the contrary – the void is full of movement. energy and electrical charge. Again knowing this, changes a choreographer’s notion of movement in empty space and how we see emptiness.

Or look at the ground beneath your feet. Again a physicist would say to you that it is 95% full of holes – and it is not solid – however much you think it is. The voids/holes in matter are a fundamental part of the whole – again held together by electro-magneticism.  Solid state of matter in fact is a vaporous state, and the whole idea of inertia and stillness is also false: when our bodies are still, they are still in a state of perpetual motion – or dancing if you like – with the particles below the neural networks hurtling inside us. In fact, the body is one of the few places on the planet where anti-matter still exists like it did  at the beginning of the world. It collides in our bodies spasmodically with matter and annihilates inside us – mimicking that first moment when the world was created in the Big Bang as well as the birth of stars.

These were some of the ideas which bombarded our first  Collide@CERN choreographer in residence, Gilles Jobin in 2012. As he said in his blog of his residency:

“I found out about the 4 fundamental forces and the fact that gravity was the weakest of all the forces. For a contemporary dancer formed basically around the question of gravity and “groundness” that came as a total shock! I was not a “pile of stuff”, but particles bound together by the strong force and “floating” on the surface of the earth… Me, the earth, you readers, the LHC flying at incredible speed through space, without any of us, (including the physicists!) noticing anything…  Stardust flying into space… I was baffled…”

The scientists and the ideas Gilles encountered during his  3 month residency at the laboratory shook his dance training to the core and the way he had previously looked at the world he lives, moves and breathes in:

“Many of the concepts I was about to discover during my residency would have a deep philosophical impact on the way I was considering the movement of a body in space…”
As well as blasting Gilles with the ideas about the dynamic world of mobile matter in which we live, the harsh, stripped back functional environment of this immense working particle laboratory proved to be an inspiration too. A hallmark of the Collide@CERN residencies are the interventions – when the artists deliberately create happenings and intervene in the spaces of the laboratory – some which the public do not have access to.  One of Gilles’s most successful interventions was in the hallowed place for physics research – the CERN library. The intervention was called Strangels – a deliberate pun on Wim Wender’s angels in his film Wings of Desire as well as the particle called a stranglette. Here is  a description of the intervention in Gille’s own words:

“My idea was to “melt” our bodies into the timeline of the library. Like time chameleons, we were to adapt our movements and presence to the quiet and studious atmosphere of the library and be practically unnoticed…. There is a special texture to “time” inside the library. How long is an afternoon in a library? Never ending or passing by too quickly? It is a shared space, with the unique density you can feel in studious atmosphere and its user’s different virtual timelines. We melted into the element of the library and as we guessed, our “unusual” presence and actions did not create conflicts with our surroundings and the students at work. It was a bit like entering slowly into water and becoming part of the element without disturbing its balance.”
A photograph taken of Gilles and his dancers tumbling in front of a physicist studiously studying  in the library and not noticing them, went viral around the world when it was picked up by the Huffington Post and the Guardian.  In essence it showed how the concentration of a dancer to be invisible whilst moving more than matched the concentration of the physicist focused on his study. The piece was a meditation on the focus of dance and physics.

Other interventions into the spaces of the laboratory made different aspects of physics physical to the dancers:

“Flows of knowledge inside the library, torrents of datas in the Calcul Center, beam of anti matter in a huge laboratory, even the cafeteria, social epicentre of mathematic minds, we physically explored different functional spaces and felt it in our bones… It was only by crossing our paths in space and time that we, the “physicals” could meet with the “physicists”.

Thus Gilles Jobin had intellectual (mind) and physical (body) encounters  in time and space with the unknown and was taken out of his depth by the residency. After all, the whole philosophy of Collide@CERN is that by encountering the unfamiliar and the unknown that new creativity and possibilities emerge – in a way mimicking the fact unpacked by particle physics that with anti matter meeting matter and annihilating, the universe was created in the first place.

Out of his time of constant displacement and replacement at the lab emerged a new dance piece called ‘Quantum’ which went on to win the Hermes New Settings Award with a dynamic light installation which dances with the dancers by the first Collide@CERN artist, Julius von Bismarck. It world premiered at CERN in Autumn 2013 in one of the great detector halls on the campus and fittingly was danced above the very spot where the Higgs Boson was detected – the new particle discovered in 2012 which gives mass to particles. Quantum then  opened in Paris, is now on tour in South America, ending its international tour in the USA in New York this fall at the prestigious BAM.

Some final words and thoughts on the connections between dance and physics –and their fitting partnership. First from Karole Armitage. She talks about growing up with her biologist father in Kansas and in the Rocky Mountains, hanging out with scientists such as John Holdren the physicist who is now Obama’s science adviser and Paul Erhlich who wrote ‘The Population Bomb. “

“They all had such a sense of humility that science and their observations were much more important than their ego, and I think dance is very much like that. We try to fulfill the idea of what dance is, and you can never be that good because dance is greater than the individual and science is greater than the individuals. I like the discipline, the humility and its mind expanding.” (Interview by Lukas Ligeti)

Next words from the theorist and composer John Cage, Cunningham’s partner, who understood that ideas are springboards of the imagination:

 “Art changes because changes in science give the artist a different understanding of nature.”

Finally some notes in the present – and also  from  the future too:

“My dance and choreography training has helped me define what “understanding” truly means for me. Before I teach a new lesson or work on a problem set, I have to feel like I can dance through the concept with my eyes closed.”

These words are by Harvard physics undergraduate  -  and dancer -  Mariel Pettee. Last year she interned with the Collide@CERN programme whilst also working on the ATLAS experiment at CERN. This May she dances – not writes – a thesis as part of  the finals of her physics degree. Dance is physics, physics is dance. Perhaps one of these days physicists will create new theories through dance, and dancers will discover new dimensions of movement through physics. Except perhaps they already have -



Gilles Jobin’s blog of his Collide@CERN residency

Emerging choreographer Move with Science – Harvard University Blog

Mariel Pettee’s creative thesis for the physics department at Harvard University.

Collide@CERN website

Collide@CERN Facebook

BeautyQuark – blogspot – read about William Forsythe and the relationship of dance to particle physics  in a personal blog about physics by Ariane Koek

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