Arts on-campus arts

Science through dance

Flagella, data compression, and choreography

It’s generally frowned upon to do a somersault in a research presentation, but this was an exception. As the music started, the students leapt onto the stage and wordlessly described their topic in a series of graceful pirouettes, dipping and weaving around each other while seeming to be propelled by their arms. “Motion of Bacteria through Flagella,” the program said.

Science, Dance and the Creative Process (12.097) aims to teach scientific expression through dance and choreography. The course was invented last fall by Mariah Steele, director of Quicksilver Dance, and Professors Raffaele Ferrari and Larry Pratt (Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Studies). Lectures by distinguished researchers alternated with rehearsals and lessons in dance composition. “Whatever we learned on Monday, we made dances about on Wednesday,” said Steele. All that hard work culminated in the final presentations on Dec. 10, in which students designed and performed dances about their own studies or research.

In one piece, the dancers billowed and swirled, formed shifting lines, and bent in the force of an unseen current. “Movements of Sea Kelp according to Random Chance.” True, the students didn’t look quite like kelp, but the dance made a deeper impression than any terse description could have.

Steele explained four different approaches to connecting science with dance: Model, Essence, Inspiration, and Brainstorming. “Modeling transcribes actions found in nature and described by science directly into a dance; Essencing distills scientific ideas to their base principles without exactly copying; Inspiration abstracts scientific ideas into aesthetic expression; and Brainstorming uses movement to gain insight into scientific questions and open ideas for further scientific investigations.”

The class did not require prior dance training, and proved to be a learning experience for novice and veteran dancers alike. In the final performance, even students who had never danced before moved with grace and confidence. For some more experienced students, it had come as a surprise to find scientific principles informing their choreography. As Minerva Zhou ’16 observed, it was like “moving outside of the box.”

Yun William Yu G plans to enter “Dance Your PhD,” a popular contest for PhD students that is exactly what the name suggests. He studies data compression, trying to find a balance between too little compression and too much. Both problems, he explains, can slow down computation. In his performance, Yu expressed this topic elegantly by designing a difficult dance sequence and executing it while his body was alternately stretched out, bunched into a ball, and somewhere in between the two. The agonizingly slow movements of an over-compressed body clearly explained the challenges of the research. “In distilling down the essence, I found that the base concepts apply not just to the scientific concept but also to something general,” Yu said. “The principles of compression and expansion also apply to the way your body moves.”

Steele hopes that students in this course will learn modes of expression that will serve them well, and also be able to relate to their scientific work at a new level. “It’s just another way of expressing — like a graph,” said Camille Henrot ’16. “Maybe when I can’t sit still in my chair, things will come out of that.”

The instructors of 12.097 hope to offer the course again next fall.